Child Safeguarding Harms & The Pandemic Response

Collateral Global

We must not aim simply to restore ‘normality’ for children. Many took to social media in the aftermath, trying to make sense of how the abuse of these defenceless children could have occurred. Some were vehement that Arthur’s death, was the result of lockdown and school closures, whilst others argued that such claims only detract from the culpability of the perpetrators. Thinking in such binary terms, however, does not advance our learning or help to better protect children in the future.

‘Between April and September 2020, the period in which Arthur and Star were both killed, there were 119 child deaths and 153 incidents of serious harm due to known/suspected abuse or neglect, as compared to 89 and 132 during the same period in 2019. During the first month of lockdown, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by around 50%. Fleeing domestic abuse will also have resulted in homelessness for many children, likely compounding their experience of trauma. In England, 15,370 households with children were homeless or threatened with homelessness due to domestic abuse between April 2020 and March 2021, reflecting an increase of almost 14% from the previous year.

In May 2020, the number of Childline counselling sessions in which abuse was the main concern, rose from a pre-pandemic average of 1325 to 1730. Whilst a proportion of this increase may relate to historical incidents of abuse, some children reported that sexual or physical abuse started or worsened during this period. Whilst online sexual offending is a global issue and one which was already growing, the pandemic and conditions of lockdown appear to have had an accelerating effect. In the UK alone, there were 8.8 million attempts to access such material during the first month of lockdown, as well as an 18% increase in the number of offences relating to the possession and distribution of child sexual abuse material during the first year of the pandemic.

Increased demand has also led to a significant rise in the sexual exploitation of children, with a reported three-fold increase in the number of children aged 7-10 targeted and groomed to provide self-generated material. The potential harms to these children are no less serious than to those who experience contact sexual abuse. Data shows that only 69% of secondary-aged children with a social worker were in attendance on 11 January 2022. Absence from school heightens the risk to children experiencing abuse at home.

In addition, for children at risk of exploitation by criminal gangs, early school exit appears to be a specific trigger point for increased risk of serious harm. During the pandemic, those who exploit children in this manner have seemingly adapted, rather than reduced their criminal activity, which has been associated with severe violence as well as a heightened risk of self-injury and attempted suicide amongst victims. Many raised concerns about the potential for increased harm to children during the early stages of the pandemic. There was evidence of increased risk of child maltreatment from previous infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters and other emergencies.

There were also reports of rising domestic abuse in countries that had locked down prior to the UK . It has been long-known that serious and fatal maltreatment incidents most commonly occur in the home and, as such, some children may face a greater risk from lockdown than from the virus itself. It was also well-established that high stress and poor coping were associated with an increased risk of child abuse and neglect. Anxiety, low mood and feelings of frustration were predictably more prevalent during lockdown, whilst protective factors such as social or professional support were simultaneously reduced.

Children aged under five and those with disability were at a statistically greater risk of maltreatment. Indeed, the Department for Education’s Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel had been so concerned about high rates of physical harm to infants that they had started a national review in January 2020. «In an attempt to mitigate risk, schools in England remained open to vulnerable children during lockdown. In addition, the lockdown attendance policy was reliant on the child’s vulnerability having been known to the authorities, which is not always the case.

For context, less than 1% of children experiencing domestic abuse have a social worker, and of those ‘seriously harmed’ during 2020 , one third were not known to be vulnerable. It is also likely that the vulnerability status of some children changed as a direct result of lockdown policy. Those who abuse children often try to keep them out of view and the deliberate isolation of a child can sometimes reflect an extension of the abuse itself. In this respect, the pandemic added an extra layer of challenge for those in frontline health and safeguarding roles, some of whom described finding it difficult to differentiate ‘opportunistic evasion of scrutiny from genuine concern about risk of infection’.

In May 2020, the Government considered whether the low attendance rates of vulnerable children might be improved if primary schools were reopened. » ‘Health visiting services have struggled to recover to pre-pandemic levels to the extent that a recent report, highlighting the impact of COVID-19 and measures introduced to control it, was titled, «No one wants to see my baby. » Higher numbers of vulnerable children attended during this winter lockdown, though most were still absent most of the time. After schools reopened in the Spring, attendance remained a matter of concern, not helped by COVID-19 policies, which had no exemption for vulnerable children and led to over a million children self-isolating at one point.

It was later found that very few of those required to isolate as ‘close contacts’ went on to develop COVID-19. The long-term effects of child maltreatment can sometimes be mitigated by protective factors, such as school-related activities and positive social/professional support. The impact of reducing, or removing these from vulnerable children, is not yet known. It is also important to note that ongoing COVID-19 policies mean that children experiencing abuse at home still face an ever-present prospect of isolation which, in itself, has the potential to compound trauma and make recovery more difficult.

Infants and pre-school children, who are at a statistically increased risk of maltreatment, have also been less visible during the pandemic. During the first lockdown, it was reported that only around one in ten children with a social worker or education, health, and care plan were attending early years settings. Universal services and parenting support were also significantly reduced, and social distancing requirements made it difficult for safeguarding workers to see families and children face to face. It was reported that only 11% of children aged under two were seen by a health visitor in person during the first lockdown.

This situation is unlikely to have been helped by previous funding cuts, as well as the redeployment of 50-70% of health visitors at the start of the pandemic, in order to increase COVID-19 care capacity. ‘Although there are plans for a full inquiry into the COVID-19 response, there is arguably a need for a separate investigation regarding children, in order that they are optimally protected in future emergencies. In early December 2020, the Coronavirus Act was amended to allow for support bubbles for families with children aged under one, as well as those under five with a disability and who required continuous care. Health visiting services have struggled to recover to pre-pandemic levels to the extent that a recent report, highlighting the impact of COVID-19 and measures introduced to control it, was titled, ‘No one wants to see my baby’ .

Child safeguarding referrals, which fell significantly during lockdown, have also remained relatively low. In addition to keeping schools open for vulnerable children during lockdown, the UK Government provided funding for domestic abuse and children’s charities. The Department for Education collaborated with Barnardo’s to deliver the ‘See, Hear, Respond’ project, which aimed to support vulnerable children and their families and ran from June 2020 until March 2021. In January 2021, the ‘Ask for ANI’ scheme was launched with UK pharmacies, in an effort to support victims of domestic abuse who were unable to seek help from home during lockdown.

Whilst laudable, there are again questions about the timeliness of these interventions and it nonetheless remains the case that, at a time of heightened risk for children, their overall safeguards were reduced rather than bolstered. There are other questions too that seemingly remain unanswered, such as whether emergency funding provided to local authorities at the start of the pandemic was directed towards adult social care, as well as why there has been variation and, in some cases, insufficient action taken by councils to find vulnerable children, despite statutory expectations for them to do so. Although there are plans for a full inquiry into the COVID-19 response, there is arguably a need for a separate investigation regarding children, in order that they are optimally protected in future emergencies. In the shorter term, however, we must not aim simply to restore ‘normality’ for children and the services that aim to protect them.

Read more.

Source: Dr Rosie Gray | Collateral Global

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.