The coronavirus pandemic is having awful health, social and economic consequences, but amid the threat and fear, it should provide an opportunity to reflect and learn. This is especially urgent in assessing its impact on children’s welfare and safety.
The pandemic has demonstrated the impact of removing safeguards for children and help for families that had been embedded in the welfare state and public services. There have been concerns about the effects of lockdown on the mental health of children and adults, increasing domestic violence, and online grooming and exploitation of children and vulnerable adults.
These concerns are amplified by the anxiety that what is happening within families is now less known, especially as children are less seen and heard outside their homes, which presents real dangers for children receiving poor care and facing threats and violence from their parents and carers. For example, a study in Birmingham found the number of children referred for child protection medical examinations during February to June this year was 40% lower than in the same period in 2018, and 37% less than 2019.
At the same time, however, another study found a surge in domestic child abuse during the first UK lockdown, with an increase in children aged 17 days to 13 months old admitted to hospital with abusive head trauma. The researchers noted that “the infants’ families all lived in areas of significant social and economic deprivation”, and that “socioeconomic deprivation and parental vulnerability [are] significant risk factors for abuse, both of which may be exacerbated as a result of the stresses imposed by quarantine measures”.
Ofsted, meanwhile, reports a 20% increase in babies and toddlers killed or seriously harmed in England during the first lockdown. The explanation given by the regulator’s chief inspector is that “the pandemic has brought difficult and stressful times [with] financial hardship, loss of employment, isolation, and close family proximity [having] put extra pressure on families that were already struggling”.
Yet at the same time as families faced increasing struggles and stressors, the opportunity to know where and when children are being abused and neglected has reduced due to the closure of nurseries, schools and family centres, as well as the need for children’s professionals to socially distance and self-isolate. As Jenny Coles, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, has commented: “The pandemic has seriously disrupted a key line of sight into the lives and homes of many families.”
So what lessons can be drawn from the effect of the measures taken to control the pandemic in England? First, there has been a disproportionate impact on deprived children and families. The stress they experience has intensified, with financial poverty even more severe and with them being locked down in poor, overcrowded and insecure housing. The link between deprivation and it being more difficult to parent well has been highlighted by numerous studies but for the past 10 years, the government has chosen to target politically chosen austerity on families already immersed in deprivation. Policies such as poverty-creating universal credit, reductions in benefit payments and the two-child benefit cap have had terrible consequences, and need to be urgently reviewed and reversed.
The second lesson is that the distancing and withdrawal of those who work to assist children and families – such as early years workers, teachers, youth workers, health professionals, and social workers – leaves children more vulnerable and families stranded without help. This has magnified the impact of what has been in train for many years. For example, the number of health visitors in England reduced by a third between 2015 and 2019, and government funding for family centres and youth services was cut by more than half from 2010 to 2018, with the Local Government Association expressing concern that children had disappeared from view.
The consequence of 10 years of austerity targeting poor families and public services had greatly undermined the capacity to provide help. Families have to be in severe crisis before they receive much of a response, and that response has increasingly been monitoring and surveillance through child protection procedures, which heightens the fear for families.
Local authority children’s services across the country have significant and increasing overspends. There are difficulties in retaining experienced social workers, with almost a fifth of roles in statutory children’s services being filled by short-term, interim agency workers. A third of councils have had a change in their children’s services leadership in 2019-20. The difficulties created by cuts, churn and change have been compounded by the increasing complexity of services such as foster and children’s residential care not being provided by local authorities but at a distance by commercial companies, with opaque owners taking big profits.
The pandemic has shown the consequences of increased deprivation and difficulties for families, greater risks for vulnerable children, and the drawing back from help for families and protection for children. As its impact hopefully reduces in the future, there are lessons that should lead to the reshaping and reprioritising of government policies for the longer term.
Ray Jones is emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and the author of the recently published A History of the Personal Social Services in England