Working through the pandemic to protect children and families

By Ann McGauran | 29 April 2020

Concern is growing about the extent of child vulnerability during the COVID-19 crisis, with the office of the children’s commissioner warning that much of it is hidden from sight under lockdown.

It has published local area profiles identifying the numbers of vulnerable children in each local area, and highlighting groups at higher risk.

According to the office, this matrix of local need is being used to inform the Government’s work to create a dashboard it can use to monitor the safety and care of vulnerable children and young people through the emergency.

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield’s 2017 report represented the first attempt to gather together in one place all the available data, and her office says her project remains ‘the only comprehensive data on all risks to children’.

As well as producing full vulnerability profiles for each local authority, the matrix also compares national rates for the estimated prevalence of underlying needs on a range of indicators to the local authorities with the highest and lowest rates.

For example, for poverty and the indicator of households claiming universal credit, the local authority with the highest rate is Hartlepool (326.96 per 1000 households with children), and the lowest rate is Surrey (57.06).

Responding to the publication of the local area profiles, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) Charlotte Ramsden said her organisation is ‘concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on children and young people, particularly the most vulnerable’.

She added: ‘It’s important to recognise that lockdown measures will be affecting children in different ways and some who we would not usually consider as vulnerable will be presenting with new needs that we will need to meet, plus some who were already vulnerable will be facing additional challenges both now and in the future.’

Speaking ahead of the Government’s announcement this week of how the latest £1.6bn tranche of cash for councils to deal with the emergency would be shared out, she said she welcomed recent funding announcements for children’s social care, but said it was likely more will be needed.

The details of how the latest funds will be allocated show that counties including Cambridgeshire, Cumbria and Derbyshire all got less than in the first allocation, despite the adults and children’s social care pressures counties are dealing with through the emergency.

Speaking recently, ahead of the details of how the funding was shared, Kent CC’s corporate director children, young people and education Matt Dunkley said the crisis ‘has definitely increased costs’.

He told The MJ: ‘We are having to make our own provision for some of these young people, and the cost of doing that is extremely high. For the youngsters who are not symptomatic, but people think they might be and they want to get the staff ratios to enable social distancing, and to provide personal protective equipment, that’s expensive.’

Mr Dunkley said government had ‘quite quickly poured the money into local government’.

He added:  ‘All the signs are that the initial money was spent within the first three weeks. So there is going to have to be a lot more of it because of the additional costs.’

The figures released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) reveal that Kent received £27.9m of emergency funding from the second tranche, to add to the £39m allocated in the first round.

Mr Dunkley said the council has ‘moved very quickly to triage and prioritise within the 10,000 or so cases – either children in care or children subject to child protection or Section 17 children in need’.

He added: ‘We prioritised those children and RAG rated them according to how closely we thought we had to keep with them. We moved quite quickly to social workers establishing contact, through technology, through Skype, through Zoom and other apps, and through phones. Where they couldn’t do that they went to visit while keeping social distancing and so on.’

In common with many local authorities , he said Kent did have an issue initially with many families ‘who were with child protection telling us they were self-isolating, and therefore didn’t want us to visit. We’ve made sure we’ve had access to those people’.

He said the council has been able to set up ‘new fields in its electronic case recording system that allow us to show where we’ve seen a child either over technology or physically seen them and whether we’ve visited at distance or spoken to them and not physically seen them’.

But he is concerned about what may happen when lockdown ends. ‘I think we all believe the end of lockdown will result in a sudden bubble in demand and a large increase in referrals for early help and social work. We are expecting the recovery phase to be the most challenging phase for us as children’s services.’

He said the biggest problem being experienced so far is ‘what we would describe as spectators on the pitch, where we have various bits of government who are constantly asking us for information, not because they are going to do anything helpful, but they want to report it up the line to someone about what’s happening’.

When questions are escalated to the Government that require an answer, responses are ‘very slow’ to come back, he added. ‘It’s understandable in the sense that everything is clogged up at the top of government  because they’ve got so much on. But it’s quite frustrating.’

He said in conclusion that ‘the message that we need to get the spectators off the pitch is a pretty strong one for us - let us get on with it’.

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