It’s clear that the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable children has been, and continues to be, profound. Previously, during the first national lockdown in the Spring, we saw those delivering services to children and young people rapidly mobilising to enable the remote and digital delivery of interventions.
It was clear then that identifying and protecting vulnerable children had become much more challenging, with home visits severely restricted, and many vulnerable children not in school or early years provision. It was also clear that early help and wider family support services would face a spike in referrals after the summer, following the reopening of the schools. More families were needing support to deal with a wider range of problems, as well as the knock-on consequences of fewer children and families having received the support that would usually have been available at key moments in their lives. A second lockdown is bound to once again increase the need for support from local authorities.
This is especially the case because many children have been experiencing stress, anxiety and isolation. Some children are experiencing increased levels of family conflict and domestic violence, whilst attainment gaps between the poorest children and their peers have been widening. These consequences – which were there after the first lockdown – will now be even more severe after the second lockdown, and will leave a lasting mark on the lives of many children and young people.
Acute services, including children’s social care, must undoubtedly receive extra funding and support. But this will not be sufficient. Acute services cannot simply absorb the additional burden created by the swell of demand, and, in addition, much of this new demand will be from families who do not meet the criteria for support from statutory services. For local authorities operating within a time of severe budget constraints and a one-year funding settlement, it is understandable that statutory provision will be the priority. However, in the longer term it will be essential to the country’s recovery from COVID-19 that more is done to intervene at an earlier point to help the growing number of vulnerable children and families who don’t have a social worker.
The early help system for children and families is critical for ensuring children get the help they need at the right time. That’s why we need meaningful investment in children’s services, including universal services provided through public health teams, as well as early help and targeted services. Local authorities must be financially supported to develop and reshape their local early help offer, so that they are providing effective support able to meet different levels of child and family need, ranging from early support through to intensive longer-term support for families with more complex problems. This is in addition to investment in acute and statutory services.
Levelling up depends on supporting all children to reach their potential, and doing this early is the most cost-effective approach. These benefits will not only be seen by children and families, but also to communities, to wider society and to the economy.
We have seen that COVID-19 has disrupted significant aspects of children’s lives, and we know that this disruption will once again go into top gear as we enter another at least month-long national lockdown. We must not rely only on statutory services to support the most vulnerable children. The outcomes of the most vulnerable children will be much worse in the long-term if we do not intervene now to provide early help, even if once again support will be delivered digitally and remotely.
We must ensure that there is significant increased support for vulnerable children and families, so that this generation of children don’t have to live with the knock-on effects of COVID-19 for the rest of their lives. A risk that’s becoming increasingly pertinent. When our minds are more focused on the building back better stage, we should all remember that this support must be at the heart of the country’s recovery.
Dr Jo Casebourne is chief executive of the Early Intervention Foundation