While the COVID-19 pandemic poses a clear risk to the life and health of vulnerable citizens, the strict measures taken to delay the spread of Coronavirus pose unprecedented challenges for child welfare and protection.
The measures affect all stages of the child protection process – from prevention of maltreatment and parenting support through to court proceedings for abuse and neglect and placement of children with alternative carers - as well as the multi-agency procedures that lie at the heart of the modern system.
They have coincided with statutory changes to local arrangements, in which Safeguarding Partnerships comprising Local Authority Children’s Services, Clinical Commissioning Groups and Police replace Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards, notably omitting Education services in the statutory partnerships.
Impact of lockdown on child protection practice
There is a wealth of research on failings in the child protection system which identifies some key factors for successful child protection working. These include:
1- A ‘child-centred’ approach which places importance on direct contact and relationships of trust with children
2- Safeguarding as ‘everyone’s business’: all practitioners working with children should be alert to signs of maltreatment and safeguarding concerns and respond appropriately
3- Multi-agency collaboration, including information-sharing across professional boundaries and ‘working together’ to assess the risk to children and institute support
4- A continuum approach, in which measures to safeguard and promote the welfare of children through prevention and early intervention services and child protection processes are part of a broad spectrum of responses and it is recognised that risk levels can change unpredictably and suddenly.
It is clear that all of these have been impacted by changes to practice that have been imposed as a consequence of the COVID-19 lock-down/social distancing measures at all stages of the safeguarding/child protection continuum, potentially impacting negatively on the short, medium and long term outcomes for children and placing them at higher risk of abuse.
Impacts on services
During the lockdown, universal services that we rely on to identify struggling families or early signs of abuse and neglect, such as schools and children’s centres, are closed, while early intervention and parenting support services such as Health Visitors and Family Support Workers are greatly reduced.
Social distancing measures have impacted enormously on the ability of frontline professionals including social workers and mental health workers to see children and families face-to-face and greatly affected the work of the Family Law courts. In healthcare, the redeployment of professionals from community services to acute care has had a massive impact on the child protection workforce capacity.
Increased child protection risks
But lockdown itself is clearly having a deleterious impact on families already living in disadvantaged or stressful circumstances. Domestic violence incidents appear to have risen significantly since the imposition of ‘lockdown’, which is significant because domestic violence is one of the ‘toxic trio’ of parenting behaviours which are harmful to children and associated with an increased risk of child abuse. ChildLine has reported that calls have risen, particularly from children feeling isolated at home or worried about parental disputes and the withdrawal of support from schools and other professionals such as mental health counsellors.
We know too that many - in some places the overwhelming majority - of the school places reserved for ‘vulnerable’ children have not been taken up by parents, leaving many professionals worried about the welfare of those children. Yet the court system is struggling to adapt to remote legal proceedings and finding alternative carers for children who may be Covid-19 positive presents a new dilemma for children’s social care services.
While these short-term impacts are already apparent, the medium to long term consequences of these changes to practice, and to the increased risks caused by COVID-19 measures, are not currently clear but are likely to be wide-ranging, including for example more families becoming homeless.
Rapidly developing strategies
We do know, however, that agencies with safeguarding responsibilities have been rapidly developing strategies and new ways of working to fulfil their safeguarding and child protection responsibilities to the maximum extent possible. For example, many statutory home visits by social workers are now taking place online, as well as child protection case conferences and court proceedings.
At a time when agencies are under immense pressure to adapt quickly to these new conditions, it is essential that agencies consider the impact of the changes to their services and practices on the safeguarding and child protection system as a whole.
Most importantly, the newly formed Safeguarding Partnerships must lead in supporting new ways to ensure multi-agency working and collaboration in accordance with the statutory guidance ‘Working Together’, to ensure that hard-won lessons in effective child protection practice are not lost in the current crisis.