Children: hidden victims of the pandemic
With a renewed determination to protect children from harm following the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes we look at the increased risk faced by vulnerable children since the pandemic.
National attention has been brought to the plight of vulnerable children this week as the terrible circumstances surrounding the torture and murder of 6-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes have come to light. The government has confirmed that a national review into his death will join the local safeguarding review in order to protect other children from harm and identify improvements needed in the agencies that came into contact with Arthur before his death.
Whilst it is premature to comment on the exact details of this tragedy, what we do know is that our child protection system is under immense pressure and services are struggling to meet the growing demands to keep children safe. In this post, we will discuss some of the factors that are putting children at increased risk and that may have contributed to Arthur's tragic death at the hands of his father and step-mother.
The effects of the pandemic on child protection
Reports suggest that the safeguarding review is likely to consider the fact that Arthur’s murder took place during the UK's first Covid-19 lockdown amid concerns that vulnerable children would be more at risk of abuse at this time. A statement from the Association of Child Protection Professionals said:
“Arthur’s situation appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the impact that lock-down restrictions had on vulnerable children and social care services. It happened at a time when services were having to rapidly change the way they worked. Taking children like Arthur out of the school routine risked making them invisible to professionals and services and made other possible routes for intervention very difficult to access.”
Research has demonstrated that school closures, home isolation/quarantine and community lockdowns have all had secondary impacts on children and their households. Save the Children launched a global research study in 2020 to evidence how these measures were impacting children in a number of areas including their health, well-being, protection, family finances and poverty. Key findings regarding violence in the home were that:
Nearly a third (32%) of the households surveyed had a child and/or parent/caregiver reporting that violence had occurred in the home, including children and/or adults being verbally or physically abused
Over 1 in 5 parents/caregivers reported an increase in their use of negative or violent parenting methods
Violence was reported at higher rates by children when schools were closed compared to when attending in person
Loss of income due to COVID-19 was associated with a higher reporting of violence in the home
In England, official data, now available on the first year of the pandemic, shows a significant rise in the number of serious incidents involving children in England. Child harm cases reported by local authorities were up by 20%, child deaths rose by 19% and there was a 20% rise in babies being killed or harmed in this time. Yet, this was not unanticipated. The then children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warned just six months into the pandemic that vulnerable children would “slip out of view”.
How did the pandemic put children at risk?
Harry Ferguson, professor of social work at the University of Birmingham, who conducted research into the impact of Covid on social workers in England, found that social workers were often the only professionals visiting children and going into family homes on a regular basis throughout the lockdown. Health visitors, early help and therapeutic services that normally support young children and parents stopped visiting homes. Schools and nurseries, that play a highly protective role for vulnerable children, were also no longer able to maintain regular face to face contact. Providing a safe space for children to talk about what is going on in their lives is essential as well as giving professionals the opportunities to spot signs of abuse. Restrictions effectively took away the ability for children to be heard by professionals.
Since 2010, there has been a steady increase in assessments by children's services of children considered to be at risk of harm, with a 77% rise from 2010 - 2018. These figures, before the pandemic, showed that 18% of children's social care referrals came from education and 15% from health care services. Government data reveals that referrals to children’s social care fell by a fifth in the first few months of the pandemic and the number of looked-after children was down by a third on previous years. This suggests that the normal vigilance by services was not maintained at the start of the pandemic.
While, in theory, schools remained open to vulnerable children the Birmingham research study found that in some cases parents were not allowing children to attend school. In Arthur's case, COVID restrictions meant that his parents were able to legitimately keep him off school. Unannounced visits, another highly protective measure, were also impeded at this time with social workers reporting that some parents were using the risk of Covid infection as an excuse to stop social workers from attending and seeing the children.
The role of local authorities
While lockdowns and school closures have undoubtedly led to an increase in safeguarding concerns news reports suggest that opportunities to protect Arthur were missed. His social workers were not kept out of the house and Arthur himself wasn’t invisible to people who loved and cared about him. Reports have focused on the fact that extended family members raised concerns and social workers visited Arthur at home just two months before he died. The conclusion of social workers who visited the home was that there were “no safeguarding concerns”. While we do not know for certain what happened in that visit it has been opined by child protection experts that the parents were very manipulative and able to fool the social workers.
Martin Narey, a former head of children’s charity Barnardo’s, said social services should be viewing potentially abusive parents “more critically”. Narey, who has advised the government on children’s issues, including the reform of social work education, said: “Social workers do an outstanding job generally, but some of them need to have more scepticism when they’re dealing with parents who are manipulative and deceitful.” He added that the current approach of social services, which places the onus on working with parents instead of ensuring the child’s safety and, if necessary taking them into care, is a flaw that has been exposed by Arthur’s death.
While news reports can feed into a public need to blame professionals, statements from authorities and organisations have also highlighted the funding crisis in children's services. In particular, the reduction in money for early intervention services has been highlighted which may well have had an impact in this case. Lord Laming, who led the public inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié and reviewed the case of baby Peter Connelly, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that cuts to social care funding had taken their toll on child protection services that could have potentially saved Arthur's life. He called for changes in the system with a focus on frontline services, commenting that local authorities have become "a crisis service, rather than a preventative service". While there are no services to prevent harm to children, cases of abuse and harm will continue to take place.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, commented:
“The hard truth is there are no simple solutions to prevention, but Arthur deserves me as children’s commissioner and the rest of the system to be asking the difficult questions and confronting the hard changes that may need to be made to protect any child that might be at risk of such malevolent adults, adults he had every right to expect to love and care for him.”
What happens now lockdowns are over?
The reopening of schools and nurseries have triggered a rush of new referrals to children's services and organisations which work with families. This surge in demand is largely due to reports of domestic violence from families trapped indoors with their abusers. Child protection services were struggling with chronic underfunding long before the pandemic hit and much like the NHS, services are now running to catch up with a massive backlog but without the same injection of extra cash and public appeals that the NHS have received.
There is now an urgent need to help children who will have been badly damaged both physically and mentally by being trapped at home with abusive or neglectful parents. There is also growing concern about families that fell off the radar during the pandemic and have not come back into view. With home visits and in-person appointments still restricted by health services, some babies born during the pandemic may not have been seen face to face by professionals for nearly two years.
We should also consider that while lockdowns may be a thing of the past the economic effects of the pandemic continue to be felt. Research has indicated that incidents of domestic abuse are higher when the family is suffering financially and particularly when the relative position of the man worsens. Government figures for 2020 show that the UK's GDP has suffered the steepest drop since records began meaning that it is highly likely that financial hardship and unemployment is likely to impact families for many years to come.
More needs to be done to protect children, whether there are further restrictions or not. Tragically for Arthur changes in policies and funding come too little and too late, but it is not too late for us as a society to invest more in child protection services that will prevent harm to countless other children living in miserable circumstances.
Children have been described as having "slipped from view" as "invisible" and "silent victims" by the very services charged to protect them. We owe it to all children that we hear their voices and keep them safe from harm.
DV-ACT experts have produced a number of posts to aid social workers in their practice, particularly when dealing with complex cases and there is a potential risk of harm to children in the home. Our post How can children be protected from abuse post lockdown? is designed to provide social workers with child-focused guidance for risk management and safety planning in domestic abuse cases. This includes practical risk management strategies for children and indications that the risk to the child is rising.
For safety planning advice please visit our post How to complete safety planning with families living with domestic abuse. General advice on working with families can be found in our post How to work with families living with abuse.
Ritz, D., O’Hare, G. and Burgess, M. (2020), The Hidden Impact of COVID-19 on Child Protection and Wellbeing. Save the Children International.
McNair, R., Banham, P. (2021). The Childhood Trust: Post Lockdown Children in Crisis - https://view.publitas.com/the-childhood-trust/post-lockdown-children-in-crisis-the-childhood-trust/page/1
Nationwide Statistics on Children's Social CAre Referrals (NAO) - https://www.servicestoschools.org.uk/Article/61703
For further resources on children's safeguarding from abuse visit NSPPC at https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/domestic-abuse/
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form firstname.lastname@example.org
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?