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Off the radar: Fears for vulnerable children as lockdown referrals fall

© Shutterstock / LokanaExperts believe schools and teachers provide a crucial early-warning system for children                      at risk because of things happening at home.
Experts believe schools and teachers provide a crucial early-warning system for children at risk because of things happening at home.

The number of at-risk children referred to protection agencies plunged during lockdown with experts fearing the closure of schools removed a life-changing safety net, it is revealed today.

Charities warn thousands of vulnerable youngsters may have endured abuse or neglect because they fell off the radar of support services during pandemic restrictions.

A Post investigation has found referrals to child protection services fell during lockdown in over half of Scottish councils and plunged by more than a quarter in some areas.

The biggest fall was in Renfrewshire, where referrals to children’s services fell by 29% but a number of other local authorities recorded referrals dropping by more than 20%. Research suggests children kept at home by lockdown experienced higher rates of violence and the referral figures have deepened the concern of experts.

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Lynn Bell, a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition and chief executive of charity Love Learning, said teachers and schools provided a crucial early-warning system for vulnerable children.

She said: “The opportunities to identify where problems existed at an early stage have been absent and all the time that we have not been identifying support young people need they are being damaged, whether this is through, for example, abuse or neglect.

“Our concern is that some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children have slipped under the radar, have simply been invisible, and that as the situation eases there will be an influx of referrals to already overstretched and under-resourced services.

“There’s potentially a whole generation of children and young people who are being traumatised, not being safeguarded, and that’s simply not acceptable and will impact not only on the individual concerned but on society as a whole.

“We will continue to pressure the Scottish Government and local authorities to ensure that there are enough resources and staff to meet both the increasing demand and pressures in the short and long term.”

Andrew Fellowes, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children policy and public affairs manager, said children who suffered harm during the pandemic must now be identified and given support.

He said: “Under normal circumstances, children’s services receive child protection referrals from a range of sources, including schools, extended family members and other adults involved in young people’s lives, such as in clubs and childcare.

“However, lockdowns and measures put in place to restrict the spread of Covid-19 meant many children were not seeing professionals and other adults, leading to a reduction in referrals in some areas and raising serious concerns that some were being exposed to harm.

“The pandemic turned children’s and families’ lives upside down. Children’s education and childcare were disrupted, mental health issues among parents and children increased, and some families who were already struggling were pushed to breaking point. Local authorities and charities had to respond to increasing levels of need in the challenging context of lockdowns.

“Now, as we move into a period of post-pandemic recovery, it is vital that all children who have suffered harm during this time are identified and that they, and their families, receive all the support they need to help them recover and move forward with their lives.”

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The Sunday Post, using freedom of information requests, obtained figures on the number of referrals to children’s services from 23 Scottish councils. Of these, 13 showed a decrease in referrals during lockdown. While referrals in some council areas were up slightly, which experts found difficult to explain, most recorded falls.

Dr Martin Kettle, senior lecturer in social work at Glasgow Caledonian University, said child welfare was often dependent on other agencies, particularly schools, to identify children who might be at risk of harm.

He said: “If children are not in school, it is less likely that concerns will be identified. Less public gaze on families may be part of the reason why the numbers are down.”

Reports of domestic abuse with a child in the household fell from 2,505 to 1,826 and referrals about childcare concerns fell from 2,284 to 745.

Referrals about risk of emotional abuse, physical injury and sexual abuse, family support and drug and alcohol misuse by both children and carers also dropped significantly.

Some of the biggest falls in child referrals during lockdown include: Renfrewshire Council, where children referred to protection agencies fell from 10,508 to 7,466 between 2019-20 and 2020-21, a decrease of 29% with referrals from schools falling from 840 to 369; East Ayrshire saw a 26% drop from 3,479 to 2,568 in the same period; Edinburgh City Council received 12,103 referrals between August 2018 and July 2019, but there was a 10% drop to 10,865 in 2019-20 and a further 3% drop to 10,494 in 2020-21. Argyll & Bute Council saw a fall from 2,754 referrals in 2019-20 to 1995 in 2020-21, a 28% decrease.

The councils said a drop in referrals was anticipated when children were not at school but a number of contingency out-reach arrangements were put in place to provide support and added protection in communities.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, the council said it could not provide the figures because it would take too long to retrieve the information.

New research from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States reveals school-age children kept home by lockdown experienced significantly higher rates of family violence.

Researchers found the number of child abuse victims five years of age and older seen at paediatric trauma centres tripled during lockdown.

Alison Bavidge, national director of the Scottish Association of Social Work, said: “The closure of vital universal services such as schools and community centres during nationwide lockdowns meant children and their families did not have their usual avenues for support, which is likely to have resulted in fewer referrals.”

She said social work departments had tried to work around the problems they faced.

“Social workers have worked extremely hard during this unprecedented time to support families and to protect children through doorstep visits, walking in parks and by using digital technologies when this was appropriate.

“At the start of the pandemic social workers did not have adequate PPE which meant that many put their own health and safety at risk.

“The physical, mental and emotional impacts of the pandemic for children and families and for those that support them have been significant.

“Its lasting legacy will undeniably be just how important human relationships, socialisation, support for parents and universal services are for the wellbeing of children and young people.”

Families have come under new strain during the pandemic as support services struggle to cope with a “rising tide” of issues including those linked to poverty and mental health, according to Ben Farrugia, director of Social Work Scotland.

He said: “This has affected social work referrals, and all agencies’ capacity to highlight and meet need. In relation specifically to child protection, we welcome the revised National Guidance for Child Protection published last month, which gives heightened attention to multi-agency support for and protection of children and work with families.”

Linda Jardine, director of children and family services at the charity Children 1st, said youngsters struggling emotionally weren’t able to see the people who would offer them support.

She said: “What we hear from children and families is they need easy access to practical and emotional support when they need it, in the way that they want it. They say that they want supportive and kind relationships so that families can recover from the stress, upset and trauma of the last 18 months.

“That’s why the welcome investment from the Scottish Government needs to ensure every family that needs it can get local, community-based support in line with the recommendations of the Independent Care Review, The Promise.”

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said: “All local authorities have robust child protection mechanisms and procedures in place and take their responsibilities extremely seriously. In common with many services, local authorities faced challenges in ensuring that they kept in touch with children and families in need of support.

“This was particularly the case during lockdown when many of the settings where needs are identified were either closed or partially open. Recognising this, all councils – working alongside our partners – provided support in hubs when schools were closed for vulnerable children.

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic, it is vital children and young people in need of care and protection continue to receive the support they need. This includes regular contact for all children on the child protection register as well as children with a multi-agency plan.”

The Scottish Government last year legislated to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into law but the bill passed by Holyrood in March was blocked by the Supreme Court last week where judges said ministers had acted “outside the competence” of the Scottish Parliament.

Critics said the legal battle with the UK Government was being sought by the SNP government for political purposes.

Scottish Labour said the government’s priority had been causing division when it should have been on protecting Scotland’s children.

Martin Whitfield, Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for Children and Young People, said: “Protecting children’s rights requires deeds not words. The SNP must act with the urgency needed.”

The Scottish Government said: “We know that periods of lockdown had the potential to put vulnerable children and young people at higher risk.

“As a result, social workers and other professionals acted to provide early support for children and families during the pandemic.

“It was anticipated that demand for children’s services was likely to increase as restrictions eased, schools returned and face-to-face visits by professionals and household interactions increased.

“This has not been reflected by an increase in the number of children with a child protection plan, but, working with key partners, we continue to closely monitor this.”

Vigilant, listening teachers are key when something is wrong at home

Angela Glassford, former head teacher

The impact of school closures on children and young people’s learning and development has, rightly, raised a series of concerns during lockdown.

Parents, teachers and children have worried about different things at different times in different ways but there was more than enough concern to go round from lack of consistent learning time in class; to lost opportunities to mark the important rites of passage like starting primary one or moving onto high school; to missing out on the experience of sitting formal exams; to forging friendships and maintaining social contact.

However, for too many vulnerable children, Covid has had a far more fundamental and pressing impact as, during closures, the protective role that schools play in the lives of children struggling was greatly diminished.

Dedicated headteachers and staff worked hard to maintain contact with pupils identified as vulnerable or at risk.

These children were prioritised for places in school based “hubs”, but not all attended and the opportunities for teachers to identify children at risk were less. Everyday, opportunities for vigilant, listening teachers were lost.

Like, for example, the P1 child being able to share with his teacher that his dad hit his mummy and he was scared, leading to intervention and supports being put in place to help the family.

Routinely, pre-five centres and schools are best placed to notice changes in children, identify family pressures, provide family supports and respond to crisis.

Linking with other agencies to make sure child protection concerns are shared and addressed is a key aspect of daily life in our schools, including liaison with Social Work Services. Covid increased the pressures likely to cause harm for children.

Poverty, domestic violence, mental health issues and lack of contact with other protective adults or services all heightened the stresses during periods of lockdown. So, while the risks went up, the safeguards reduced.

Acting to prevent harm and protect children most at risk is clearly a priority, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the referral figures, good schools are protective and nurturing environments for all children and our most vulnerable children need that more than others.

For many, there will be no access to private tuition to help them catch up and little chance of paying to join clubs or pursue hobbies to enrich their social world. School does that for them.

Attentive teachers who notice when a child is feeling sad, school discos where children get to play and have fun together, family events that provide an escape from the stresses all add up to provide the safety net our children need.

Now that pupils are attending full-time, schools will be better placed to highlight and respond to child protection concerns, while at the same time will be under enormous pressure to focus on academic learning and ensure children “catch up”.

Now is the time for a focus on funding and planning responsive, local, family-centred services. Schools can’t do the job alone and effective agency partnerships across education, social work, health and the voluntary sector are needed.

That has always been the case; our recovery from lockdown merely makes it far more urgent.