The COVID-19 pandemic, the Coronavirus Act 2020 and prevention of abuse
Amongst the less-known effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the impact on child protection. Risk factors include the lockdown itself, which forces families to cohabit on a permanent basis, as well as overcrowding, loss of income and high levels of stress and anxiety. These increase the risk of abusive behaviour against children by adults, or other children, living in the same household. Protective factors, such as contact with supportive adults outside of the house, or contact with friends is also reduced. There is also concern about increased exposure to online harm, including grooming, creation and dissemination of child sexual abuse videos or other content.
Another significant factor is the reduction in referrals. With many schools now closed, and families having very limited interaction with professionals such as health visitors, GPs, midwives, school nurses, social workers or therapists, the number of referrals has gone down dramatically. According to the Guardian, children’s services directors are reporting a 25% to 50% drop in referrals. The World Health Organisation has also issued a Joint Leader’s statement – Violence against children: A hidden crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 makes significant changes to many areas, including education and social care. Its provisions came into force on 31 March 2020 and guidance was issued on the same day (Care Act Easements: guidance for local authorities), on 1 April 2020 (Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on vulnerable children and young people) and on 3 April 2020 (Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for local authorities on children’s social care).
Some of the provisions concerning special educational needs (SEN) are already in force (e.g. no duty to carry out NHS Continuing Healthcare assessment). Some of the provisions will come into force when the Secretary of State for Education makes the appropriate notice. At that point, the absolute duty placed on local authorities will be downgraded to a duty to use reasonable endeavours (e.g. no absolute duty to secure special educational provision, suspension of annual reviews of Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)). Also, there will be no duty on schools and institutions to admit a child when they are named in section I of the EHCP.
Many changes affecting adult social care, including transition plans to adulthood, are already in force. In principle, there should be no significant change to children social care, save for some additional protection. Children who have a social worker, children in need and children who meet the definition in section 17 of the Children Act 1989 are deemed to be vulnerable. The expectation is that they will attend an education setting, although each situation will be assessed on a case by case basis. Local authorities are also expected to monitor vulnerable children carefully. Statutory deadlines in safeguarding cases remain unchanged, but the guidance acknowledges that delays may occur. Local authorities have vowed to continue face to face visits for the most vulnerable children. On that point, it is worth noting that section 6 and Schedule 5 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 provide for emergency registration of social workers in England and Wales.
Local authorities need to bear in mind that the Human Rights Act 1998 is still in force. They would do well to keep a record of any decision to disapply statutory provisions and their reasons for doing so.
Written by Geneviève Rich, Associate Solicitor at BLM