There are a number of concerns in relation to the impact that Covid-19 has had and will continue to have on children, particularly those who are vulnerable or in need of additional support.
In Northumberland, the local authority says that lockdown didn’t mean loss of care for the county’s youngest residents, with services continuing throughout for many.
Cath McEvoy-Carr, the council’s executive director for adult and children’s services, said: “Children and young people in our county have, like so many, faced difficulties during the last few months, but this is something that we have not lost sight of, with all our children’s services continuing throughout the pandemic.”
Since March, the authority’s social work, education and partnerships teams worked with schools and partners to ensure that none of its services suffered during lockdown, with children and young people still able to access the care they required.
“It has certainly been a different way of working, but that hasn’t stopped our teams working together for the best outcomes during this difficult time,” Mrs McEvoy-Carr said.
However, earlier this month, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, published new analysis revealing thousands of teenagers were already falling through the gaps in the school and social care system before the pandemic.
The importance of ‘consistency of care’
The report sets out the risks affecting these young people, including persistent absence from school, exclusions, alternative provision, dropping out of the school system in Year 11, or going missing from care.
The Commissioner is concerned that these teenagers, who were slipping through existing gaps in the system, will remain ‘invisible’ even after the lockdown restrictions ease and has called on councils to work with police and schools to focus resources on this cohort.
In Northumberland, the data suggests that there are more than 600 13 to 17-year-olds with at least one of the ‘falling through the gaps’ indicators.
Mrs McEvoy-Carr said: “We have worked closely with schools, children and their families to encourage attendance where possible, or support home-schooling, and our social workers have continued to meet with their children and families virtually or face-to-face in line with guidance.
“We fully recognise how important the consistency of care is for many and will do what we can to ensure it continues.”
The authority also highlighted that children and young people crave attention from their peers, which was made extremely difficult through lockdown.
Those known to the council’s youth services and social care teams, as well as those reported missing during this time, have reported this lack of interaction as a key concern and officers are working to help them process this for the benefit of their mental health and wellbeing, a spokeswoman said.
Social care referrals see big fall
In its response to the Commissioner’s report, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils, said that social workers and other staff ‘have done an incredible job trying to keep children and young people safe and well during this hugely challenging period’.
However, it noted that children’s social care referrals have fallen by more than half in some areas, raising concerns that not all young people are getting the support they need.
In Northumberland, while this drop was noted at the start of the outbreak, referrals have bounced back now.
“Initially social care referrals dropped due to the effects of lockdown, with those who would ordinarily make referrals adapting their processes to manage this,” Mrs McEvoy-Carr said.
“Referrals are now at, and in some cases above, pre-lockdown levels and our teams are working hard to find these children the right support moving forward.”
Last week, we reported that the number of young people subject to child protection plans in Northumberland hit a 10-year high in the last quarter of 2019-20, with the latest increase largely taking place in the four weeks before lockdown.
The number of children in care in the county has also increased over the last year, with this this spike continuing into lockdown, although this was not necessarily down to more children going into care, so much as the authority not being able to get young people out of care at the same rate as before.
Nonetheless, the figures prompted the council’s Labour opposition to say that it would welcome ‘an in-depth discussion across the whole council about this and what can be done to turn this situation around’, adding that ‘this is the very least our children and young people deserve’.
The group’s deputy leader, Cllr Scott Dickinson, said: “We pay tribute to council staff who are responding quickly to the unprecedented demand to protect children and young people. However, to say this situation is concerning is an understatement.”
200% increase in ‘screen time’
Another council report discussed last week referred to the fears of an increased risk of online exploitation during the Covid-19 lockdown, because young people will have been spending more time online and on social media – national figures suggest a 200% increase in screen time.
In relation to Northumberland, it said: ‘Our referral and assessment data is representative of this, showing a notable increase in children’s social care intervention as a result of online exploitation.’
“Sadly, Northumberland is not immune from this damage to our children,” Cllr Dickinson said. “It must be tackled and measures put in place to protect children and young people from this dreadful harm.”
While the impact of Covid-19 is perhaps more pronounced on older children, it also affects the youngest and Northumberland County Council’s early help and children’s centre services developed a range of proactive and preventative ways to support families as the lockdown kicked in.
This included replacing face-to-face group delivery with virtual methods, providing families of children of different age groups with a range of resources to support home education of their children, continuing to support vulnerable families, proactively identifying other potentially vulnerable families, and offering support and work with other agencies to plan to support children’s emotional health needs moving forward.
In another report, the Children’s Commissioner has called for the Government to make early years central to the Covid-19 fightback, warning that many nurseries are at risk of closure, which not only hits the life chances of children, but also holds back the economic recovery.
Supporting a call for a review of the early years system, Cllr Judith Blake, chairman of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “The current offer does not give parents clarity about the best options for their children and there are growing concerns about the provision for disadvantaged children, those with special needs, and significant challenges facing the workforce.
“Covid-19 has also exacerbated the financial challenges facing early years providers and there remains an urgent need for additional funding to support them.”
Increasing spending on the early years – in line with one of the recommendations in Sir Michael Marmot’s 2020 review of health inequalities in England – is also included among the issues flagged up in a new discussion paper on ‘Building a country that works for all children post-Covid-19’, published by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).
It stated that the Department for Education should articulate the impact of Covid-19 on childhood across government and lead the charge for securing sufficient resources for children’s services in the forthcoming spending review, with Cllr Blake saying that ‘the real challenge for children’s services is yet to come’.
In Northumberland, the increasing numbers of looked-after children mentioned above is described as the ‘the driver behind the continued financial pressures across the service’.
Children’s social care in the county recorded an overall £3.8million overspend in 2019-20, although underspends in other areas mitigated the £5.7million deficit racked up due to the rising cost of external residential placements.
The first major step on the horizon is the return of all young people to school in September.
In recognition of the concerns raised nationally and locally about likely challenges faced by some, Northumberland County Council and partner organisations are working to ensure support is available, particularly for those children who may be anxious about that return. A range of resources to help with this can be found at https://padlet.com/nies1/parentcarerresources
Cllr Wayne Daley, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services and deputy leader, said: “Our commitment in supporting all our young people, including the most vulnerable, has continued and will continue through and beyond the pandemic.
“We continue to recognise the effects Covid-19 has had on them and will do our utmost to support them and their families to be as safe as possible and to do as well as possible whether this be in the short or long term.”