Children’s sector professionals apprehensive of surge in need for services as lockdown eases

The unknown surge in demand for children’s services predicted when the lockdown is over has been described as a wave “gathering pace beneath the surface” that could have a widespread lasting impact.

The true scale of need is unlikely to be known until measures are relaxed much further and schools fully reopen – months away from now, a report by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and Action for Children found.

They interviewed more than 30 children’s sector professionals between March and May about the impact of coronavirus on early help services that would ordinarily be supporting vulnerable families below the threshold for statutory local authority support

The experts revealed “widespread apprehension” about the ability of services to respond to what could be a significant rise in need.

They are also concerned about “out of sight” children who may have become vulnerable, but who were not known by authorities before the lockdown.

Dr Jo Casebourne, EIF chief executive, said: “Our research paints an ominous picture of a wave gathering pace beneath the surface.

“Beyond the immediate impacts of the lockdown on issues such as children’s mental health, levels of family conflict, academic progress or the effects of social isolation – many of which are visible and widely recognised already – our interviewees have highlighted the compounding risks created by a period when traditional face-to-face social services and interventions have been radically reshaped, severely constrained or simply cut off altogether.

“As pressing as the immediate concerns are, we must also look further ahead, to the problems that are being stored up by this systemic disruption.

“As lockdown conditions are eased, services face a double hit, not only from more families needing more support to deal with a wider range of problems, but also from the knock-on consequences of fewer people having received the support that would usually have been available at key moments in their lives.

“These consequences will leave a lasting mark on the lives of many.”

The report says that ensuring early help and family support services are properly funded to meet the anticipated increase will be a “critical part of the pandemic recovery phase”.

During the lockdown, school closures have interrupted usual safeguarding procedures, with teachers less able to spot new problems in their pupils.

While some children in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 began returning in early June, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to admit defeat over plans for primary schools to fully reopen before the summer holidays.

Children’s services professionals have also been struggling to investigate or identify signs of abuse, neglect or domestic violence without home visits and face to face contact.

While digital services have increased, they fear certain groups, such as those without laptops or who do not speak English as their first language, may be unable to access this support.

One children’s services manager in the East Midlands said: “We are less concerned about children in the children’s social care system, and more concerned about the children who aren’t – who aren’t in touch with any services.”

The report said: “There is a fear of the unknown – that a wave is approaching but no one knows just how big it will be.

“Only as the lockdown is more widely eased will the full extent of the impact of Covid-19 on children and families become apparent.”

A Government spokesman said: “Since the start of the outbreak, all vulnerable children have been able to continue attending school and we have invested significantly in projects designed to support the most vulnerable children, increasing support for foster families, care leavers, adoptive families, and children with disabilities.

“This includes working to expand NSPCC helplines, partnering with Barnardo’s to provide additional frontline support, bringing thousands of social workers back on to the register, working with local authorities to make sure social services stay in touch with the most vulnerable, and providing over £100 million worth of devices so vulnerable children can stay in contact with schools and social workers.”

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