What happened to child protection during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Earlier this year we reported on the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child protection and the initial statutory response in England. It was predicted that children would be exposed to harm due to an increase in risk factors and a decrease in referrals. In the social care context, the Government was prepared to relax some of the duties placed on local authorities, but not those which concerned child protection.
Studies since March 2020 have confirmed earlier predictions. In its report on social isolation and the risk of child abuse the NSPCC concluded ʺThe combined impact of increased stressors on caregivers, increased child vulnerability, and reduced safeguards increases the potential for new and recurring cases of abuse in all its forms.ʺ The report – which provides an overview of research from key journals, online resources and other sources since March 2020 – noted a marked increase in stressors (financial stress, food insecurity, juggling multiple responsibilities) and negative coping strategies (alcohol abuse, ‘uninvolved’ parenting). It also noted an increase in children’s vulnerability (increased exposure to online abuse and grooming, prolonged exposure to domestic abuse or neglect, reduction of protective factors) even if some risks had reduced (such as the exposure to abuse in educational or institutional settings).
Crucially, the report noted that lockdown itself made children more susceptible to harm. Lockdown dramatically reduced peer interactions and friendships, which play a significant role in children’s mental health and resilience.
Another significant factor was the disruption to protective services. A study carried by the KCL Policy Institute amongst 15 English local authorities found that service delivery had been maintained through virtual visits, and that multiagency working had actually improved (greater involvement of GPs and paediatricians). But clues are missed and evidence is harder to gather when conducting virtual visits. Children are likely to remain exposed to abuse for longer.
Universal services such as GPs, schools and health visiting all play a crucial part in detecting signs of abuse. These services were paused or limited, especially during the first lockdown. A significant reduction in child protection referrals followed. A study carried out in Birmingham (the largest local authority in Europe) found that child protection medical examinations for an 18-week period in February-June had reduced by more than 37% from 2019 to 2020. That reduction was even greater (47%) when looking at referrals initiated by school staff. Other areas make similar reports. The concern here is that child abuse has remained hidden during school closures but further research will be needed to confirm the cause of reduction in referrals. The overall incidence of child abuse is thought to have increased during the pandemic, even if referrals went down initially. Reports of a hidden wave of child abuse during the first lockdown probably played a part in the government’s decision to keep schools open during the second lockdown.