Keep schools open over future lockdowns to protect children, experts say

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The Government must “strive to keep schools open” in the event of future lockdowns, a safeguarding body has said, as cases of child abuse and death jumped 27% during the first wave of coronavirus.

In its second annual report, the Child Safeguarding Review Panel said it had received notifications of 482 serious incidents relating to 514 children last year.

Local authorities must notify the panel, set up following the implementation of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, of the death or serious harm of a child in their area if they suspect it resulted from abuse or neglect.

Of the 482 cases reported over the course of 2020, 206 involved the death of a child and 267 related to serious harm.

In six cases the child was the perpetrator of harm, two involved the serious criminal exploitation of a child, and in one the child was engaged in violent or risky behaviour.

The most risky age was for children under the age of 12 months accounting for 35% of cases, followed by teens between 15 and 17, accounting for 30% of incidents.

Of the 206 deaths referred to the panel, 36 were as a result of maltreatment by the family, while 17 were as a result of an assault by a person outside the family.

Signage outside a closed school (Tim Goode/PA)
Signage outside a closed school (Tim Goode/PA)

The panel found that domestic abuse was present in the household of 41% cases of fatality, while neglect was a feature in 35%.

A combination of domestic violence and substance misuse was present in 24% of all incidents reported to the panel.

The panel noted that the feeling of isolation during the first lockdown were a contributory factor in a number of incidents of suicide, but added often there was not a single trigger event.

The panel noted it had received 285 serious incident notifications between April and September, up 27% over the same period in 2019.

It found the lockdown had put greater pressure on parents and families and also exacerbated the vulnerabilities of children and young people.

Home pressures such as overcrowding, domestic violence and poor mental health were the biggest risk factor for non-accidental injury of a child and sudden unexplained infant deaths, the panel said.

The report said: “Lack of contact with extended family members during lockdown meant the loss of a key protective factor in some cases.

“In others, family dynamics changed where a new partner joined the household to avoid lockdown contact restrictions.”

It added that school closures deprived children of contact with professionals who would usually have been able to spot signs of harm, meaning vulnerable young people remained below the radar.

“This reinforced the crucial role that schools play in child safeguarding and the need to strive to keep schools open in any future lockdown period, if at all possible,” the report said.

The report also criticised the eligibility criteria for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), noting the service had “limited flexibility and responsiveness to meet children and young people’s mental health needs.”

It added: “These issues have taken on greater significance as a result of the evident concerns about children and young people’s mental health and emotional well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Of the 51 incidents in which young people were drawn into risk-taking or violent behaviour, 75% had evidence that the child in question was subject to serious criminal exploitation, such as being sucked into “county lines” drug running.

Annie Hudson, chairwoman of Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, said in her foreword to the report: “We fail too often to grasp and make sense of the intrinsically unique identities and life experiences of children.

“Reading between the lines of what children and families say and communicate, as well as what they do not say, involves time, imagination and the most proficient of relational skills.”

She added: “Our mission, working with others, is to develop and embed a learning culture where agencies at every level are honest when things go wrong, where partners are properly held to account without scapegoating, where there is time and determination to reflect and learn, and where that learning translates quickly into policy and practice.”

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman voiced her alarm at the spike in the number of babies being victims of non-accidental injuries in a speech to the National Children and Adults Services Conference in November last year.

She said at the time: “The pandemic has brought difficult and stressful times. Financial hardship, loss of employment, isolation, and close family proximity have put extra pressure on families that were already struggling.

“Poverty, inadequate housing, substance misuse and poor mental health all add to this toxic mix.”

Anna Edmundson, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “This report highlights once again the difficulties and dangers some children have faced during the pandemic and the unique challenges services have had to overcome in their efforts to keep them safe.”

She urged the Government to ensure all new parents receive regular face-to-face visits from health visitors regardless of where they live.

“(The Government) also need to invest in prevention and early intervention services so children and families can get the right help at the right time and to ensure support is available to help young people recover from harm,” she said.

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