The focus of the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly been on saving lives and protecting the physically vulnerable. However, whilst deemed the least at risk from the coronavirus, the pandemic is having a silent, but severe effect on the welfare of UK children.
The lockdown has led to increased disputes as separated parents battle over whether contact between children and non-resident parents is safe; to otherwise use COVID-19 to initiate or renegotiate contact; to retain children after contact under the guise of ‘self-isolation’ or ‘shielding’ or to unilaterally change agreed arrangements and Court Orders.
Those children living in unsafe or abusive households, not previously identified to local authorities, have gone unchecked as standard protection systems such as schools or local authority children’s services are disrupted, while usual interactions with grandparents, clubs or family friends have also stopped – reducing the chances of abuse being identified. The potential short and long-term impact on child welfare is devastating.
A recent report from Action for Children and the Early Intervention Foundation reaffirms that the closure of schools and lockdown has impacted the ability of children’s services to identify and support vulnerable children.
The report recognises the challenges of ascertaining which children have become more vulnerable. The subtler signs of abuse, neglect or domestic violence, for example, are harder to spot without home visits or other face-to-face contact.
While the rate of coronavirus in the community is decreasing and lockdown measures are eased, it is inevitable that the numbers of vulnerable children will rise, especially as the virus’s economic implications become more apparent. The Office for National Statistics has reported 600,000 job losses in the UK between March and May, with a major drop in vacancies.
Combined, the impact of the coronavirus will put already stretched child protection and support services under intense pressure. The same is likely for the family justice system which faces a backlog of cases needing to be re-timetabled and re-listed while also dealing with new applications in a timely fashion.
The childcare sector has made steps to adapting to the new realities of providing support during the pandemic. The lockdown has eased fears about utilising technology for child welfare issues, enabling some contact to be maintained by children’s services using virtual sessions to check on children.
However, the move online is not without issues. Virtual communication does not allow children’s services to read body language as effectively or identify who else might be offscreen and in the room with a potentially vulnerable child - stopping issues being voiced.
There is still clearly a long way to go and the last three months have provided learnings which must be addressed to ensure vulnerable children are identified and supported.
Expanding support networks
With the majority of schools remaining shut until September, any remaining contact points with children will need to be maximised to ensure those at risk are not hidden from view.
The government’s decision to provide free school meals over the summer is a key opportunity to identify children in potentially vulnerable settings. It is vital that children’s services use these types of situations to reconnect with children that were harder to reach during lockdown.
Employers also have a part to play and should think constructively about how they can support families where working from home has become established during lockdown. Easing pressure on families at a time when childcare is limited will help to lessen conflicts and the likelihood of a child entering a vulnerable situation.
Family justice system
As the lockdown eases there is likely to be an increase in legal disputes involving children, spanning where they stay and what schools they attend. These are not scenarios where children are at risk of immediate harm and do not need to be dealt with through litigation.
To avoid these cases burdening local authorities and family courts, the government and Ministry of Justice need to look more closely at legal mediation. This process uses an accredited family mediator to help participants find their own solutions outside of court.
While initial mediation information meetings are now a requirement for most, prior to a court application, there remains no legal requirement to attempt to mediate family disputes. The proposals for routine state-funded mediation in England and Wales is still some way behind other countries such as New Zealand which passed the Family Dispute Resolution Act 2013 making mediation assessments free to all.
Diverting family dispute cases away from the courts will enable local authority children’s services and the court-appointed Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to focus on cases where child protection is critical. Most importantly, it will put the emphasis on parents to make ‘parenting decisions’ as, in reality, they are the ones, not the court, who are best placed to find a resolution with potential support from a mediator.
Though there are no quick fixes to protecting vulnerable children in the UK, the tactics outlined show that the legal profession, courts and local authorities can innovate. Even small changes will make a difference and allow the childcare sector to navigate the challenges ahead.
Chris Lloyd-Smith is a partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors