When lockdown restrictions were announced in March 2020, WillisPalmer and its CEO, Mark Willis, raised alarm bells that a lengthy lockdown period could not be justified as it could cause more societal, health and wellbeing issues than the coronavirus itself. However, now approaching September, many children in England have experienced six months with no education, little routine, scarce social interaction and for the vulnerable children in society, a worse fate of witnessing domestic abuse, being neglected, experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse and not knowing where the next hot meal is coming from. In this article, Willis outlines the severity of the problem and presents WillisPalmer’s Children’s Charter, set up to ensure that all children impacted negatively during lockdown have access to help and support as soon as possible to address the problems and thrive.
It has been of grave concern to WillisPalmer since day one of lockdown that many vulnerable children and young people were entitled to a place at school alongside the children of key workers, yet there was very little take up This means many children known to children’s services have been at risk for six months, under the radar of professionals, without the sanctuary of school or outlet of access to a social worker and potentially incarcerated with their abuser for months on end.
It is not just children known to children’s services: many families have struggled with social, emotional and economic hardship during lockdown with fears over physical and mental health.
Indeed, WillisPalmer previously informed the Parliamentary Review that many families would be experiencing the toxic trio of substance abuse, mental ill health and domestic violence during lockdown. This is backed up by reports from the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which reported calls to the helpline rose by 120 per cent on April 6 and traffic to the website increased by 700 per cent.
In July, children’s mental health charity YoungMinds reported that 80 per cent of children and young people with mental health problems said that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse. Meanwhile, a front-line social worker told us that lockdown did not seem to impinge on people’s abilities to access drugs during lockdown and some users were, in fact, increasing their intake to try and self-medicate the anxiety they were experiencing during lockdown.
The impact of lockdown restrictions crosses all classes and all generations. Anyone can be affected by having restrictions imposed and the effects of Covid-19 will be far reaching. Some groups are more vulnerable than others too, including vulnerable children and families, young carers, those with underlying health problems who have had to shield, and the elderly.
It is inevitable that we will see a massive increase in referrals to children’s services when children return to school in September, albeit in a very different fashion than they have been used to. In fact, Matt Dunkley – head of the largest children’s services department in England in Kent – has warned that the rise could be as high as 250 per cent.
This is why WillisPalmer, the largest provider of multi-disciplinary children’s services in the UK, is launching a Children’s Charter to support children experiencing problems as a result of lockdown.
We are very aware that referrals to children’s services have been down because many children have not been in education and schools are one of the main sources of referral. However, schools will have enough pressure getting educational attainment up and adhering to social distancing. This is why we are asking the government to support schools not just for the next school term but in the longer term. Some problems will emerge immediately, others may take months to be uncovered. Some may be small issues, whereas other children may be experiencing huge complex problems. This is why, we are calling on schools to be vigilant and look for signs of abuse and neglect, but also to report any safeguarding issues to children’s services, which need to be adequately resourced and funded to tackle the challenges ahead.
Above all, we do not want a Covid generation growing up with unmet needs and a lack of support. Social workers are specialised, trained professionals who are adept at dealing with these issues. However, they need the government’s backing – and funding – to do their job well.
The Children’s Charter was established to ensure that the needs of vulnerable children impacted by lockdown measures are met and they are provided with better than adequate support now and in the future.
WillisPalmer’s Children’s Charter is calling for the following:
1. All vulnerable children should have a one-to-one ‘welcome back’ session with a member of staff trained in child protection and safeguarding on return to education to enable them to discuss any issues they may have about returning to school or their experiences during lockdown. All concerns raised in these sessions that suggest a safeguarding matter should be referred to children’s services by the next day to ensure problems are addressed as a matter of urgency.
2. All children returning to school should have a one-to-one session with a member of staff, for example their teacher, TA, or a member of the pastoral team, welcoming them back with an opportunity to discuss any concerns about returning to school and/or problems they may have encountered during lockdown. Again any concerns highlighted should be referred to children’s services by the following day.
3. Counsellors and therapists based in schools should have an ‘open afternoon’ whereby pupils can drop in discreetly and discuss any problems they may be experiencing as a result of returning to school or as a result of lockdown. The use of various types of child-friendly therapy can be introduced during these sessions. Schools with no in-house counsellors or therapists should buy in trained professionals to support pupils and staff. Schools must receive additional funding to support this.
4. All school staff should have refresher training in spotting signs of child abuse/neglect and what to look out for.
5. Safeguarding leads should have access to refresher training courses in identifying signs of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, phobias, bipolar disorder, psychosis and body dysmorphia. The government’s commitment to having a designated mental health lead in each school or college by 2025 needs to be enforced with haste to tackle problems emerging from lockdown.
6. The government must ensure that children’s services are adequately resourced and funded to cope with the predicted increase in demand for services following schools’ re-opening in the short, medium and long-term.
7. Children showing signs that they have experienced abuse or neglect during lockdown should have access to help and support swiftly and any problems identified should be referred to children’s services by the following working day. The government’s green paper on children and young people’s mental health outlines that some areas will be trialling access to mental health support within four weeks, sooner where problems are severe. This proposal should be rolled out as soon as is reasonably practicable to support vulnerable children and ensure their lives are not blighted by poor mental health inherited through lockdown restrictions.
8. Parents or carers who have struggled with lockdown having experienced social, emotional or economic hardship should have access to family support in a bid to improve parenting and prevent children on the edge of care being drawn into the care system.
9. The government should expand its plans on placing social workers in schools safely and in-line with Covid-19 safety guidance to ensure school pupils and staff have access to a trained child protection specialist in order to respond to safeguarding concerns and mental health issues.
10. The government must demonstrate a commitment to schools in the long-term to ensure that problems that have been created through the impact of lockdown are tackled as soon as they come to light. Schools should have the funding and access to social work and psychological services to ensure ongoing support, given that many of these issues may be complex and will not emerge – or disappear – overnight.
Many vulnerable children have experienced six months of torture during lockdown and will undoubtedly emerge with many complex problems and issues as a result. The Children’s Charter is being launched so that all children impacted negatively during lockdown have access to help and support as soon as possible to address the problems and thrive.
It would be a travesty to lose a generation, blighted by poor mental health, poverty and abuse as a result of lockdown. These children need support immediately and the government needs to commit to ensuring that children’s services, schools and mental health services are adequately resourced and funded to provide this life-changing service.