Child Safeguarding Harms & The Pandemic Response
We must not aim simply to restore ‘normality’ for children. Instead, we should look to offer a level of support that is commensurate with the harms incurred.
Recent news of the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson shocked the nation. Many took to social media in the aftermath, trying to make sense of how the abuse of these defenceless children could have occurred. Some were vehement that Arthur’s death, was the result of lockdown and school closures, whilst others argued that such claims only detract from the culpability of the perpetrators. Thinking in such binary terms, however, does not advance our learning or help to better protect children in the future.
‘Between April and September 2020, the period in which Arthur and Star were both killed, there were 119 child deaths and 153 incidents of serious harm due to known/suspected abuse or neglect, as compared to 89 and 132 during the same period in 2019. 102 of these incidents involved infants (aged under one), as compared to 78 previously.’
Of course, it is right that those who inflict or are complicit in abuse, are held responsible for their crimes. It is also correct that child maltreatment pre-dates, and will likely post-date the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what is equally true is that there is evidence of increased harm to children in England during this time. Between April and September 2020, the period in which Arthur and Star were both killed, there were 119 child deaths and 153 incidents of serious harm due to known/suspected abuse or neglect, as compared to 89 and 132 during the same period in 2019. 102 of these incidents involved infants (aged under one), as compared to 78 previously. There were also relatively large increases in the number of incidents involving children aged between one and five (48 compared to 32) and children with a disability (40 compared to 31).
These figures relate to notifiable incidents only – i.e. those that are fatal, involve potentially life-threatening injury or cause serious and/or likely long-term impairment to health or development. Other ‘less serious’ abuse is nonetheless still harmful. For example, the emotional, social and developmental effects of exposure to domestic abuse upon children are well-documented. Furthermore, there is a well-established association between domestic abuse and direct child maltreatment, as was apparent in Star’s short life. During the first month of lockdown, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by around 50%. Not only that but there was evidence of abusive behaviour escalating more quickly than before, with increased levels of physical violence. For context, 830,000 children in England were reported to be living in homes where domestic abuse had occurred in 2019. Thus, it is likely to have been a feature of lockdown for many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. Fleeing domestic abuse will also have resulted in homelessness for many children, likely compounding their experience of trauma. In England, 15,370 households with children were homeless or threatened with homelessness due to domestic abuse between April 2020 and March 2021, reflecting an increase of almost 14% from the previous year.
‘It is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 pupils have disappeared from school registers altogether. The whereabouts and safety of these children is currently unclear, but many are likely to be vulnerable.’
Children themselves have also reported increased harm during lockdown. In May 2020, the number of Childline counselling sessions in which abuse was the main concern, rose from a pre-pandemic average of 1325 to 1730. Whilst a proportion of this increase may relate to historical incidents of abuse (the memories of which often became harder to avoid during the isolative experience of lockdown), some children reported that sexual or physical abuse started or worsened during this period . One girl, aged 11, told Childline that her father, who had been sexually abusing her for most of her life, was doing so more frequently (‘5 or 6 times a day’) and that he was ‘really hurting’ her. A boy, aged nine, reported that his parents had started punching and hitting him and his younger sibling, on their bodies and sometimes their faces.
There has also been a steep rise in demand for online child sexual abuse material. Whilst online sexual offending is a global issue and one which was already growing, the pandemic and conditions of lockdown appear to have had an accelerating effect. In the UK alone, there were 8.8 million attempts to access such material during the first month of lockdown, as well as an 18% increase in the number of offences relating to the possession and distribution of child sexual abuse material during the first year of the pandemic. Increased demand has also led to a significant rise in the sexual exploitation of children, with a reported three-fold increase in the number of children aged 7-10 targeted and groomed to provide self-generated material. The potential harms to these children are no less serious than to those who experience contact sexual abuse. Indeed, victims of online sexual exploitation have described a sense of ‘sickening anticipation’ that is difficult to overcome, knowing that images of them will continue to circulate and be used for sexual gratification.
The pandemic has also seen a significant increase in the number of children absent or missing from school in England. Data shows that only 69% of secondary-aged children with a social worker were in attendance on 11 January 2022. Furthermore, it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 pupils have disappeared from school registers altogether. The whereabouts and safety of these children is currently unclear, but many are likely to be vulnerable . Absence from school heightens the risk to children experiencing abuse at home. In addition, for children at risk of exploitation by criminal gangs, early school exit appears to be a specific trigger point for increased risk of serious harm. During the pandemic, those who exploit children in this manner have seemingly adapted, rather than reduced their criminal activity, which has been associated with severe violence as well as a heightened risk of self-injury and attempted suicide amongst victims.
Many raised concerns about the potential for increased harm to children during the early stages of the pandemic. There was evidence of increased risk of child maltreatment from previous infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters and other emergencies. There were also reports of rising domestic abuse in countries that had locked down prior to the UK . It has been long-known that serious and fatal maltreatment incidents most commonly occur in the home and, as such, some children may face a greater risk from lockdown than from the virus itself. It was also well-established that high stress and poor coping were associated with an increased risk of child abuse and neglect. Anxiety, low mood and feelings of frustration were predictably more prevalent during lockdown, whilst protective factors such as social or professional support were simultaneously reduced. Indeed, opportunities to use positive coping strategies were often limited, whereas the opportunity for negative coping mechanisms (e.g. increased drinking) was not. Lockdown and school closures exacerbated existing problems and/or created new ones, many of which were likely to be associated with increased risk. It is likely that there were parents/caregivers who had previously managed to cope, but their coping abilities were exceeded by stressors associated with the pandemic. For example, many were dealing with a rise in family conflict; prolonged confinement in overcrowded or inappropriate housing; illness and/or bereavement; work challenges and financial insecurity; and an increase in household and/or caring responsibilities. Furthermore, those who already had abuse potential (e.g. those with a sexual interest in children and/or beliefs supporting child abuse), were likely to be less inhibited in their actions and have increased opportunity to offend.
It was also known pre-pandemic that specific characteristics increased children’s vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. Children aged under five (particularly under one) and those with disability were at a statistically greater risk of maltreatment. Indeed, the Department for Education’s Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel had been so concerned about high rates of physical harm to infants that they had started a national review in January 2020. Feelings of loneliness and disenfranchisement had also previously been associated with increased vulnerability to exploitation, both on- and offline. Thus, there was likely to be a heightened risk involved in introducing or increasing children’s participation in the digital world whilst they were physically separated from their peers, particularly during a period that online offending was rising, and parents/caregivers often had a reduced capacity for supervision.
‘The pandemic added an extra layer of challenge for those in frontline health and safeguarding roles, some of whom described finding it difficult to differentiate “opportunistic evasion of scrutiny from genuine concern about risk of infection.”‘
In an attempt to mitigate risk, schools in England remained open to vulnerable children during lockdown. However, only 6% attended initially. This figure rose slightly over time but was still only at 11% after Easter 2020. No doubt many parents/caregivers were concerned about the risk of infection and had difficulty reconciling the offer of attendance with strong government and media messaging, emphasising the importance of staying at home. However, the fact that engagement and attendance difficulties were already prevalent amongst these children is also likely to have been an issue. In addition, the lockdown attendance policy was reliant on the child’s vulnerability having been known to the authorities, which is not always the case. For context, less than 1% of children experiencing domestic abuse have a social worker, and of those ‘seriously harmed’ during 2020 (i.e. during notifiable incidents), one third were not known to be vulnerable.
It is also likely that the vulnerability status of some children changed as a direct result of lockdown policy. Many parents/caregivers who were unable to work from home sought childcare assistance from others, and couples who lived apart decided to cohabit rather than be separated (the latter appears to have been relevant in the last few months of Arthur’s life). Those who abuse children often try to keep them out of view and the deliberate isolation of a child can sometimes reflect an extension of the abuse itself. In this respect, the pandemic added an extra layer of challenge for those in frontline health and safeguarding roles, some of whom described finding it difficult to differentiate ‘opportunistic evasion of scrutiny from genuine concern about risk of infection’ .
In May 2020, the Government considered whether the low attendance rates of vulnerable children might be improved if primary schools were reopened. Ultimately, however, this did not happen until September 2020. Whilst some limited year groups were able to return earlier, it is unlikely that the boy aged nine who disclosed physical abuse to Childline would have been eligible, nor probably the girl aged 11 who reported being sexually abused by her father. Attendance was non-compulsory during this period and, sadly, Arthur was kept at home, despite his year group having reopened several weeks before he was killed.
‘Health visiting services have struggled to recover to pre-pandemic levels to the extent that a recent report, highlighting the impact of COVID-19 and measures introduced to control it, was titled, “No one wants to see my baby.”‘
After schools reopened fully in Autumn 2020, there was evidence that absenteeism was an issue of increasing concern. However, recommendations for addressing this were seemingly overlooked and schools in England closed again to most pupils in January 2021. Higher numbers of vulnerable children attended during this winter lockdown, though most were still absent most of the time. After schools reopened in the Spring, attendance remained a matter of concern, not helped by COVID-19 policies, which had no exemption for vulnerable children and led to over a million children self-isolating at one point. It was later found that very few of those required to isolate as ‘close contacts’ went on to develop COVID-19 (under 2%). The long-term effects of child maltreatment can sometimes be mitigated by protective factors, such as school-related activities and positive social/professional support. The impact of reducing, or removing these from vulnerable children, is not yet known. It is also important to note that ongoing COVID-19 policies mean that children experiencing abuse at home still face an ever-present prospect of isolation which, in itself, has the potential to compound trauma and make recovery more difficult.
Infants and pre-school children, who are at a statistically increased risk of maltreatment, have also been less visible during the pandemic. During the first lockdown, it was reported that only around one in ten children with a social worker or education, health, and care plan (EHCP) were attending early years settings. Universal services and parenting support were also significantly reduced, and social distancing requirements made it difficult for safeguarding workers to see families and children face to face. It was reported that only 11% of children aged under two were seen by a health visitor in person during the first lockdown. This situation is unlikely to have been helped by previous funding cuts, as well as the redeployment of 50-70% of health visitors at the start of the pandemic, in order to increase COVID-19 care capacity.
‘Although there are plans for a full inquiry into the COVID-19 response, there is arguably a need for a separate investigation regarding children, in order that they are optimally protected in future emergencies.’
In early December 2020, the Coronavirus Act was amended to allow for support bubbles for families with children aged under one, as well as those under five with a disability and who required continuous care. This amendment was neither referenced nor explained in the impact analysis published on 30 November 2020. However, it followed an increase in notifiable incidents amongst these groups between April and September 2020, raising the question of whether additional harms might have been reduced or avoided, had it been introduced sooner. Furthermore, there are still weaknesses in safeguarding mechanisms, some 22 months later. Health visiting services have struggled to recover to pre-pandemic levels to the extent that a recent report, highlighting the impact of COVID-19 and measures introduced to control it, was titled, ‘No one wants to see my baby’. Child safeguarding referrals, which fell significantly during lockdown, have also remained relatively low. As of December 2021, it was estimated that there had been 82,000 fewer referrals made since May 2020 as compared to 2017-20, suggesting that opportunities for intervention are potentially being missed across all age groups.
In addition to keeping schools open for vulnerable children during lockdown, the UK Government provided funding for domestic abuse and children’s charities. The Department for Education collaborated with Barnardo’s to deliver the ‘See, Hear, Respond’ project, which aimed to support vulnerable children and their families and ran from June 2020 until March 2021. In January 2021, the ‘Ask for ANI’ (Action Needed Immediately) scheme was launched with UK pharmacies, in an effort to support victims of domestic abuse who were unable to seek help from home during lockdown. Whilst laudable, there are again questions about the timeliness of these interventions and it nonetheless remains the case that, at a time of heightened risk for children, their overall safeguards were reduced rather than bolstered. There are other questions too that seemingly remain unanswered, such as whether emergency funding provided to local authorities at the start of the pandemic was directed towards adult social care, as well as why there has been variation and, in some cases, insufficient action taken by councils to find vulnerable children, despite statutory expectations for them to do so. Whilst the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, recently referred to harms caused by school closures as a ‘painful lesson’, this expression of regret offers little information in this regard. Although there are plans for a full inquiry into the COVID-19 response, there is arguably a need for a separate investigation regarding children, in order that they are optimally protected in future emergencies. In the shorter term, however, we must not aim simply to restore ‘normality’ for children and the services that aim to protect them. Instead, we should look to offer a level of support that is commensurate with the harms incurred.
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Dr Rosie Gray is a registered forensic psychologist and qualified probation officer, who has worked in the NHS and for the Courts. She specialises in child safeguarding issues and intra-familial harms.
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