Dark days of lockdown have given abusers perfect cover to attack children like Arthur Labinjo-Hughes

In June last year, the NSPCC produced a report titled Isolated and Struggling, which attempted to quantify the risk of child maltreatment during lockdown.

The research behind it found that the risk to children was threefold: parents struggling to cope under the financial and mental stress of lockdown; children in abusive families having “prolonged exposure to potential harm”, and the removal of the safety net provided by school attendance, health visits and other social contact.

The NSPCC suggested at the time that there was a lack of understanding of the impact of social isolation on children, but it made the common sense point that children are far less likely to disclose abuse “while they are trapped at home with their abuser”.

Children abused more frequently during lockdown

The charity Childline found evidence that some victimised children were being sexually abused more frequently during lockdown, as they were spending more time with their abuser. 

One 11-year-old child told the charity: “My dad has been sexually abusing me nearly all my life … but in lockdown dad is doing it five or six times a day.”

One way of countering this would have been home visits, when social workers could get an instinctive feel for whether a child was at risk.

Instead, many case workers were checking up on their clients via Zoom as a result of health and safety risk assessments, denying them the opportunity to see the bigger picture.

The Department for Education’s vulnerable children and young people survey reported that in January and February of this year, some local authorities were making 50 per cent of contacts virtually, with one social services department saying that “the majority of children on child protection and child in need plans are currently being seen remotely, following risk assessments”. 

Ms Longfield said: “In some areas social workers would continue to visit the most vulnerable families throughout, but a lot of meetings went online and it’s much easier for a parent to evade the view of social workers.

“I have heard of social workers asking families to take the camera around the house, look in the fridge, but you can’t see what’s happening off-camera and you can’t pick up on what else is going on in the room.

“I was pleased that schools stayed open in lockdown for vulnerable children, but for parents trying to go off the radar, being able to say they were home-schooling was perfect cover.

“Teachers are the people children are most likely to report abuse to, and at one point in lockdown, referrals to social services almost halved because children weren’t being seen by teachers.”

Home visits, of course, are not foolproof – two social workers did visit Arthur at home to check out the concerns of relatives about bruises on his back, but they reported “no concerns” after being hoodwinked by Arthur’s father and stepmother, who had coached the boy into saying his injuries were caused by play-fighting.

Could social services have done more to protect Arthur?

Yet some social services departments will now be asking themselves whether they could have done more during lockdown, as plenty of small charities and schools refused to allow Covid-19 cautiousness to stop them carrying out face-to-face visits.

The author Polly Curtis describes in this newspaper how Kim Maynard, a child welfare officer employed by the Q3 Academy in Tipton, West Midlands, visited 256 homes during lockdown after becoming concerned that phoning families was not enough.

Some children who already had a social worker were receiving visits, but others who were being newly abused or neglected during lockdown fell through the cracks. The average social worker already has around 40 cases to handle, which is widely seen as too large a caseload.

Staff absence remains a problem: at the height of the pandemic last year, some local authorities had almost 30 per cent of social workers unavailable because of Covid-19, and as recently as July this year some councils still had more than 10 per cent of their social workers absent through Covid-19.

Meanwhile, a snapshot of school attendance carried out by the Department for Education found that on November 25 this year 23 per cent of children with a social worker assigned to them were not at school.

Some schools, such as the Q3 Academy, have dedicated teams working to find out why children are not in school, but campaigners such as Ms Longfield believe such an approach should be universal, rather than being left to chance.

Mr Loughton said that funding for children’s social care had increased in recent years but added: “The demands on children’s social care have gone up disproportionately, as well, and so too often what is happening is that we are intervening late.”

Not that abusive parents or relatives are the only danger to children that increased during lockdown.

Because children were spending more time online, often alone in their bedrooms, the opportunities for paedophiles to prey on them increased proportionally.

Sharp rise in grooming

The Internet Watch Foundation discovered that nine million attempts to view child sexual abuse material online were made in Britain in the first month of lockdown. 

It also reported a sharp rise in children being groomed to share self-generated indecent images of themselves, often by adults posing as children.

Often there are understandable reasons for children being off school, such as separation anxiety that has taken root during lockdown, or a fear of eating meals outside the home, though the housing and education charity Oasis has found that by repeatedly engaging with families and encouraging them to discuss their problems with schools, non-attendance can be cut by more than 90 per cent in some areas.

For the remainder, the DfE warned in its survey of vulnerable children that more and more people are “on the edge of care with … situations reaching crisis which could be due to the impact of Covid-19”. 

In January the Government set up an independent review of children’s social care provision, led by former teacher Josh MacAlister, who founded the social work charity Frontline.

It is due to publish its findings in the spring, which cannot come soon enough for the unknown number of children for whom lockdown has become a byword for abuse.

 

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