NSPCC ‘extremely concerned’ as councils report referrals to children’s services fall by nearly a fifth

The number of children referred to social care services for support fell by nearly a fifth during the height of the lockdown, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said.

Figures show that between April and June children’s social care teams received 41,190 referrals, a drop of 18% compared with the same period over the last three years.

Local authority monitoring by the Department for Education (DfE) in England showed that during one stage of the lockdown, referrals from schools decreased by 77% compared with the same weeks in 2018.

However, referrals from the police increased by 16% compared with the same 2018 period.

The NSPCC said it has seen an average of 1,099 calls to its helpline from adults with concerns about a neglected child over the last four months, up 42% compared with the pre-lockdown average.

Data collected by DfE suggests some local authorities began to see an increase in contact last month, with some also anticipating a spike in demand.

The LGA said councils have significant concerns about the falling referrals, and are trying to identify children who may be at risk.

Local authorities are also working to ensure that if referrals spike as children return to school this week there is help available, the LGA said.

The number of children who started being looked after also fell between April and June, with a total of 1,640 – down by a third compared with the same period in the last three years.

The LGA has said funding pressures and an increased demand for child protection services pre-pandemic has resulted in councils scaling back or cutting universal and early help services.

The group, which represents 335 of the 339 councils in England, is calling on the Government to use the forthcoming spending review to provide sustainable funding to councils to allow for investment in preventative and universal services.

Judith Blake (pictured), chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The impacts of the pandemic will be far-reaching for some children, young people and their families.

“As this becomes clearer, more children and their families are likely to need support and councils expect to see a significant rise in referrals to children’s social care and demand for wider children’s support services.

“Some children and their families will need significant interventions, but others will just need some extra help to get through a difficult period.

“It is vital that councils have the funding they need to support children, young people and families during the current phase of the crisis and beyond.”

Responding to the figures, NSPCC public affairs manager Andrew Fellowes said the drop in referrals was “extremely concerning”.

He added: “Now children are back at school – many of whom may have struggled with abuse, neglect and mental health problems – it’s crucial Government makes sure staff are equipped to recognise and respond sensitively to their needs.

“This system was struggling even before the pandemic and now it’s imperative that the Government delivers investment in early intervention and recovery services or they risk a generation of children remaining as the hidden victims of this pandemic.”

A Government spokesman said: “The safety and wellbeing of the most vulnerable children remains a priority.

“That’s why, throughout the pandemic, schools, nurseries and colleges remained open to them and it is now a national priority to get all children back into the classroom full-time – because it is the best place for them to be.

“Despite the challenges, the availability of social workers remains stable. We are also placing social workers into hundreds more schools to help teachers spot the signs of abuse or neglect more quickly.

“We’re giving councils unprecedented support during the pandemic to tackle the pressures they have told us they’re facing, including more than £3.7 billion which has been made available to help them meet additional demands – including within children’s social care services.”

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