COVID-19 posed a huge challenge to children’s services. In a space of days, huge organisations had to move a service based on face to face relationships to one of home working and remote contact. Local authorities had to plan for horror scenarios of 40%, 60% and even 80% staff absence.
This meant ensuring the continued care for looked after children, maintaining child protection plans and re-risk assessing children in need.
On the whole, children’s services have passed this test remarkably. The commitment of frontline staff has shone through with low absence rates. A renewed pragmatism has led to renewed co-operation between councils and independent residential care providers. This has meant the care of looked after children has continued in a way the Youth Custody Services has not even attempted for children in custody.
However, this is far from job done. Our child protection services – and local authorities’ legal obligations towards vulnerable children – extend far beyond children’s services. Safeguarding in England is provided by a ‘partnership’. On a statutory level this is a shared responsibility of local authority, police and clinical commissioning group. But much of the work supporting children is delivered by a much wider partnership including schools, health visitors and children’s centres. Significant swathes of this partnership have closed their doors, or radically reduced the number of children they are seeing. This causes two issues:
- Visibility – many of our most vulnerable children are becoming invisible just as the risks to them increase. Referrals to children’s services are down by up to 50%.
- Holding risk – safeguarding partners don’t just identify risks to children, they ameliorate them. If they are not operating, this risk needs to be held elsewhere, ultimately responsibility reverts back to the local authority.
The much bigger task, therefore, is to restructure a safeguarding partnership in order to continue to meet the needs of children, as all these other services change their practice.
This means knowing what everyone else is doing (and in a local authority with 200 schools this alone is no easy task) and more importantly, understanding what this means for the children and families.
Once this is done, the task is to devise a system-level response, that eliminates the gaps through which vulnerable children otherwise fall. There are many things to consider here, not least how to share data and what is an appropriate expectation to place on local partners who may be struggling themselves?
Local partnerships need to think creatively, but also not to be afraid to employ the additional powers afforded them in the 2016 Children and Social Work Act to compel agreement where needed.
Anne Longfield OBE is children’s commissioner for England