Vulnerable children 'hidden and at risk' during coronavirus lockdown

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Poverty, homelessness, neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse, exploitation, and a lack of food – hundreds of thousands of children facing significant risks are hidden from the authorities because of the coronavrius lockdown.

The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has published an index showing the extent of child vulnerability in different areas of the country.

It comes amid fears that the continuing coronavirus lockdown has removed most of the usual ways of identifying children at risk, including via school safeguarding procedures.

Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show that before Easter 99 per cent of all children – and 95 per cent of all children defined by the government as “vulnerable” – were no longer attending school or early years education.

However, the numbers have improved slightly since Easter, with the proportion of vulnerable children in schools rising to 10 per cent or so.

Elsewhere, a Guardian newspaper investigation also found a significant drop in the number of social services referrals. One social care department in the South East of England reports that they are dealing with just 25 per cent of their normal daily referral levels (Weale, 2020; see also Headteacher Update, 2020).

The education secretary Gavin Williamson has written to school leaders and local authorities urging them to focus on encouraging vulnerable children into school – something Ms Longfield said was “a very welcome step”.

However, she is still concerned that “the great majority of children with a social worker are not attending, while other community hubs – such as doctor’s surgeries, youth centres, children’s centres and libraries – are closed”.

She said: “The coronavirus emergency has put hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children in England at heightened risk. While the government’s decision to keep schools open for the most vulnerable children is welcome, sadly most of them are just not showing up.

“They are most likely at home, often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks – a lack of food in the house, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, or experiencing acute difficulties due to parental domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Many will be caring for parents or siblings themselves in these incredibly difficult circumstances.”

Some schools are working with councils to ensure that children known to be vulnerable are still being seen by professionals. Ms Longfield wants this approach to be replicated across the country and her index, published on Saturday (April 25), is intended to help local authorities identify just how many vulnerable children they are likely to have in their areas.

Groups at heightened risk and identified in the index include those in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation, those with fragile parents, young carers, or those without internet access.

The index highlights the estimated 102,000 young carers in England, the 1.5 million children living with a parent/carer who has a severe mental health problem, and the 830,000 living in a home where domestic abuse has taken place in the last year.

It highlights the more than 10,000 children estimated to be in gangs, the 130,000 children in temporary accommodation and at risk of homelessness, and the 4.1 million children living in poverty (compared to the 1.22 million who claim free school meals).

The data is part of a three-year project to create a “matrix of local child need”. Ms Longfield launched the initiative because if society does not know how many vulnerable children there are, how can it do enough to help them?

This week she said that the coronavirus crisis has brought into “sharp focus” the dangers of vulnerable children falling through the gaps in services and policy.

She continued: “I applaud the efforts of some schools and councils to ensure vulnerable children are still being visited by teachers or social workers. I’d like to see this extend throughout the country.

“Our figures on local need lay bare the extent and nature of child vulnerability in each area, and the extraordinary pressures on some councils to try and protect them all.

“I believe that with the right will, government – local and national – could ensure that all vulnerable children are seen and contact is maintained, harnessing if necessary the efforts of suitable volunteers, those from services which are currently closed or who are recently retired from child-facing work.”

In his letter to school leaders, Mr Williamson urged schools to use their discretion when deciding which pupils are vulnerable and should be attending.

He urged schools to keep their lists of vulnerable pupils “under review” and to share them with local authorities and children’s services.

He added: “I want to place special emphasise on your continued efforts to ensure as many of these (vulnerable) children and young people are supported to attend (school) where it is in their best interests to do so.”­

It comes as the DfE announced new funding designed to help prevent vulnerable children from falling off the radar (DfE, 2020).

Around £12 million has been given to 14 projects including support for families at risk of domestic abuse, support for teenagers at risk of exploitation, support for children in care, as well as mental health initiatives.

There is also £1.6 million to expand and promote the NSPCC’s helpline service, which offers advice and support on how to raise concerns about children at risk.

Responding to the children’s commissioner’s report, Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said that the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on vulnerable children was a major concern for councils.

She continued: “Referrals to children’s social care have fallen by more than half in many areas and councils continue to work closely with local partners and communities to identify children who may be at risk.

“Understandably, many families are concerned for the health of their children and other family members if they attend school. Councils are working with schools and families to provide reassurance, and to make sure that where children aren’t in school, they are still being spoken with regularly.

“It is essential that local safeguarding partners, including councils, the police and health, have the resources and capacity they need to keep children safe, and that communities know how to spot signs of risk and how to report these.”

The Children’s Society has also been warning that the lockdown has left many children “lonely, isolated and unable to get respite from home lives which may be blighted by violence, conflict or substance misuse”.

Commenting on the children’s commissioner’s report, Sam Royston, the charity’s director of policy and research, said:It’s hugely worrying that so many vulnerable children are invisible right now to the professionals who would normally spot risks and help keep them safe.

“The drop in referrals to social care and small proportion of vulnerable children attending school are a big concern.It’s crucial that social care and schools encourage families to send children to school where possible but we also want them to ensure that all vulnerable children have a named trusted professional who they can turn to.”

Ms Longfield has said that she will be publishing a series of reports into particular vulnerable groups of children in the coming week.

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