From classrooms to family courts, every part of the structure that protects children from harm has been upended. What has happened behind closed doors?
At 3.08am in week nine of lockdown, a 13-year old girl plucked up the courage to write an email to her teacher.
“Hello miss,” she typed. “I’m writing to you to ask you about information or advice about how I can cope in this situation because I hate it here in my home. My older brother keeps on arguing with my little brother, he keeps on being rude to me which sounds childish but it’s annoying… he’s making me seem as if I’m some stupid person just sitting around and annoying him. My mum shouts every single day because of my misbehaved little brother. And my dad… I don’t even want to talk about him.”
Why this story?
The sudden closure of classrooms and the enforced boom in home schooling were the most obvious and visible disruptions to the lives of children as soon as the coronavirus lockdown began.
As GP’s surgeries, schools and social work visits closed down, the safety net, the early-warning system, the whole ecosystem of safeguarding the welfare of children disappeared.
Some have gone out of their way to keep checking in on children, but as families struggle, emotionally and financially it has been hard to know how children are faring. As Louise Tickle discovered, some government decisions have not helped.
As Britain begins to open up, there is a need for a reckoning: what has happened during this pandemic; how have decisions been taken; and what must be done differently? David Taylor, editor
The email ended with a plea. “What can I do to relax or just calm down because I literally just feel like ending it all. I’m sorry you have to read this but please help me. Thanks.”
Receiving an email like this, from a pupil whose wellbeing and safety had never given any cause for concern, is “devastating – the worst possible thing”, says the girl’s headteacher, to whom her email was immediately passed. “But what’s worse is that sentence afterwards where she says, ‘I’m sorry you have to read this.’”
The headteacher – who oversees eight of the 48 Harris Federation academies in and around London – audibly swallows a sob at the end of the phoneline. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m finding it really hard.”
On 20 March this year, all schools in England closed their doors. Since then – apart from a tiny proportion of those entitled by virtue of their vulnerability, or having key-worker parents – none of the nearly nine million pupils in the country have entered a classroom.
School is the only place where a professional will regularly see a child outside of their home, so concern for young people’s welfare and, increasingly, their safety has become acute. These concerns are borne out in a collection of emails and accounts of teacher/pupil contacts that was shared with us by the Harris Federation.
The testimonies of children’s life in lockdown paint a frightening picture of how some families are experiencing the pandemic behind closed doors.
Since March, from classrooms to GP surgeries, social work departments to health visiting services, charity outreach workers to family law courts, every part of the intermeshed structure that protects children from harm has been upended. What has happened to the children who are now out of sight?
Overcrowded and dangerous
“This student doesn’t speak English. They’re a family of six who live in a bedsit – a private rental in a damp and humid basement flat. There was recently an infestation of rats/mice, and the mother gave birth to a new baby during lockdown. The room is deemed wholly unsuitable and dangerous by the maternity team at the hospital. Dad lost his job and they have no money coming in. They are currently relying on food parcels and vouchers from our school. The father broke down in tears when he came into school and his mental health has been adversely affected. His wife is still not healing after childbirth and the family are exhausted.”
Teacher account, Harris Federation
Since lockdown began, the Harris headteacher notes, there has been “at least” a 50% uplift in safeguarding cases across her schools. “It’s certainly got worse, and we’ve had more students who weren’t already on our radar revealing their situation.”
Her staff have made huge efforts to contact families regularly: as a result they know first-hand that “a lot of parents have become more vulnerable because they’ve lost jobs in this period”.
For many of her pupils, those conversations have also demonstrated that the closing of schools has been “massively traumatic”, she says. With alcohol sales increasing during lockdown and a known surge in domestic abuse, many children will have witnessed their parents being “completely derailed”.
“When you add in poverty and terrible housing, you have a desperate situation,” she continues. “How does that child rebuild faith in their parents? This is what’s going on. And that is a huge concern for us, because I’m not sure you can ever undo that damage.”
Stressed parent, no money
“I was put on loudspeaker so I could hear the parent screaming abuse at the child, a year 7 boy. I managed to arrange for him to come into school that week. Mum apologised and said she was very stressed as the baby would not stop crying and they had no money for nappies or food. I said I would get her a wellbeing package. When our student arrived at school his Mum called him and he said he wasn’t allowed to stay long, just to get the food and nappies. I couldn’t hear what she said but the boy then burst into tears. He was very closed and said he was okay. But he’s not okay and if he was in school we would be able to support him through this and give him respite from a stressed home.”
When schools closed their doors, teachers, social workers, health visitors and GPs across the country shuddered. Forget about children’s right to learn: they knew that the sound of school gates shutting meant stress, misery and, in some cases, danger for hundreds of thousands of children across the country.
In Grimsby, assistant primary head Zane Powles immediately decided he had to keep eyes on his most vulnerable pupils. “My first thought was, how are we going to see these children to make sure they’re safe?” he says. At Powles’ school, Western Primary, 46% of pupils are entitled to free school meals. On a map, he plotted each of those 80-odd households, and drew a route between them. Then, he began to pack those meals in rucksacks strapped to his back and front, “crisps fastened in a bag to the side of me, otherwise they’d get squashed,” and deliver them in person. He’s walking the seven mile route, house-to-house, every day. “The majority of our families are great and even though they struggle, some don’t have the safest home life,” he says. “Those are the children I had to make sure I saw – that they came out of their house, made sure they were physically okay, okay with their mental health, were able to chat.” If nobody answers the door, he’ll knock and leave the meals on the step, “but there are some houses where I need to see the children every day.”
As lockdown began, some councils decided that social workers could only do home visits where the risk to children was known to be very high. Powles understands that tough calls have had to be made, but says, “it’s all about [safeguarding] thresholds, really – things being ‘good enough’ in terms of what social workers might see as danger, might not be good enough in terms of what you and me might like to see.” Because a council’s social work resources often can’t keep pace with demand, a child’s situation typically has to be very bad indeed before social services will step in.
Single mum with three children
“Mum has been trying to hold things together but had a mental health crisis. She was unable to cope in such isolation. She called us as she didn’t know who else to talk to about it. She has sent her children to school every day and said that ‘school has saved my life.’”
On the other side of the country in Bristol, child protection social workers were – like social workers everywhere – facing the prospect of trying to keep children safe without being able to see them. They also knew referrals from schools which alert them to children at risk would immediately fall off a cliff.
“Those initial few days were very confusing,” says consultant social worker Elena Castanares, who heads up a team of five practitioners in the city’s East team. “We didn’t have guidance from the government, we didn’t have any advance warning, then there was all of the fear that we were trying to contain in our colleagues, other professionals, our managers, and of course the families.” As a middle manager, she felt “pulled in all directions”. Initially, says her colleague, consultant social worker Sarah Duffy, “it’s fair to say there was an expectation from the top [of children’s services] that we might be able to continue as best we can with the way we work – but as frontline social workers we knew we couldn’t.”
The child protection system “with its whole range of protective factors that knitted together – though still with huge gaps – was suddenly thrown up in the air and had to change overnight,” observes Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield. “Overnight, social workers were having to reimagine how they would work. Screens [for visits to vulnerable families] became a default, and there was a process to rate the level of risk for children. But that is never going to be perfect.” If a child was not on that ‘greatest risk list’, they were likely to have to wait. “And kids who aren’t known to local authorities, but who schools would have known… they would be missed,” says Longfield. “And at that stage, there wasn’t any real mechanism to get them back.”
Both Castanares and Duffy say their fears for children soared as they realised that lockdown and social distancing restrictions meant fragile families, often living on a knife-edge between coping and collapse, would find their support systems abruptly switched off. “The fact that children are at school every day offers such a layer of protection,’ says Castanares. “Also, all the other professionals, such as health visitors, offer a layer of monitoring in the community, and our concern was that all this was suddenly gone.” Duffy adds that “so many of the concerns we have for children are in relation to how parents manage stress. For a large proportion of these households, we knew stress was going to go up”.
Meanwhile, across the country, in decisions taken at the top of children’s services departments, all face-to-face contact between parents and children in the care system was summarily stopped due to concerns about health risks: contact centres where those meetings take place closed. And social workers like Castanares and Duffy instantly realised they would face intense dilemmas about how to keep at-risk children safe while being fair to birth parents. “One family, who we’ve been working with for a long time, had a baby due in April,” recalls Duffy. “We went to [the family] court, and that was a newborn removal… but it felt awful making that recommendation, because that meant they’d only be able to see the baby three times a week by video. It goes against every fibre of your being.”
The implications for any infant of having no physical contact with a birth parent are extremely serious, when they spend the first months of their lives in foster care. The bonding between a mother and her baby that develops during what would normally be at least thrice-weekly ‘contact’, and how she has demonstrated her ability to care for her infant in those sessions, is one of the strongest arguments that woman can make against adoption if a local authority ultimately decides to ask for permanent removal. While at Brighton and Hove City Council, Natasha Watson, the lead lawyer for safeguarding litigation, says, “my own view is that it would be wholly wrong for parents to be penalised for something that was beyond their control,” Emily Boardman, a partner at Boardman, Hawkins & Osborne family law solicitors suspects not all councils will behave with such integrity. “Yes, I fear there are local authorities who’ll add it onto their list of criticisms to hold against parents, when they say [to the judge] ‘you have to look in your balancing exercise at the fact the baby has no relationship with its parents,’” she says. “I don’t doubt some local authorities will put that into a statement, and will try to run it.”
And so the price of this pandemic could be paid across future generations of children whose lives are changed forever by losing their relationship with their birth parents, who could not stand the unprecedented strains it has imposed.
April: The pressure builds
As lockdown began to hide vulnerable children from view, and teachers, health professionals and social workers agonised about how to keep them safe, the government launched a bombshell.
Instead of strengthening protections for children, in late April, the Department for Education announced the emergency relaxation of a slew of safeguarding regulations that had been fought for over decades, and which helped to guarantee the wellbeing of the – now record – numbers of children living in the care system. No longer would social workers be obliged to visit a child within a week of the state taking them into care to make sure they were safe and well – a phone call would do. Standards in residential children’s homes were weakened.
The requirement for monthly monitoring visits to those same (mostly privately owned, profit-making) institutions was jettisoned. Mandatory six-monthly independent reviews for children in state care were similarly scrapped. Children’s rights organisations were furious. The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, made her displeasure public in three terse tweets which made it plain she had been told about but not consulted on the changes. Six days later she demanded they be reversed. “Government has concentrated on the providers and the system, rather than on children,” she now says. “It can’t be just about the functioning of that system; it has to be about the children within it.” But despite a concerted campaign over the ensuing weeks including a demand in parliament made by leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer, the government refused to shift. It has still not relented. The children’s rights charity Article 39 has been given permission to judicially review the government’s decision to do away with those regulations, and its case will be heard in court later this month.
Family living in a hostel
“They say they feel very unsafe. They have two children at the school who had been working from one phone until we learned of this and provided them with some more equipment. The whole family lives in one room. The children need to use public transport to get to school and haven’t been coming because the parents are so worried about infection. They desperately want to return to schooling more fully.”
Right from the off, Longfield was fearful for children whose parents were just about coping, but were about to be faced with unendurable stress, and has persistently highlighted her concerns about children living in what she calls “very fragile home environments.” She points out that 800,000 plus children live with domestic abuse, similar numbers live with parents with addiction issues, and more with parents suffering severe mental ill-health. “That’s over two million children,” she says. “And suddenly they were locked down in households without any formal support.”
It soon became obvious that many children at risk were indeed no longer visible to anyone who could protect them. In the first week that schools were closed and as the national lockdown officially hit, Bristol City Council saw child protection referrals drop by 15%. They remained at that lower level for the next nine weeks. And although referrals rose from police, accident and emergency, ambulance, housing department and families themselves, there was, says Alison Taylor, a frontline child protection social worker at Birmingham Children’s Trust, a “significant” drop-off in referrals from schools – hardly surprising given that only a tiny proportion of children still entitled to attend (those with a social worker, special educational needs, or with key worker parents), ever turned up.
At Rednock secondary in Gloucestershire which has a roll of 1,500, around 280 pupils were identified by teachers as being entitled to a place. In the first week of lockdown, between 18 and 26 pupils came through the door. Seven weeks later, after immense efforts by Rednock staff to encourage families to send their children, just 42 were in school. “We have a list of 160 to 170 kids not in school who we would class as vulnerable. They are getting either weekly or daily phone check-ins,” says assistant headteacher Kerala Cole. “We’re working with social work and police for those who we’d prefer to be in school but aren’t.”
Some families did hit rock bottom. And at that point, the family court had to step in. But as lockdown persisted, the family justice system descended into a state of barely-controlled panic as lawyers and judges realised that courtrooms were no longer safe spaces, and virtually every case would have be heard remotely. This initially meant by telephone, but soon platforms like Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams were being used in a free-for-all that soon prompted acute concerns about ease of access, families’ privacy, and fair process.
While simple case management hearings could easily transfer to a virtual platform, almost immediately, there was dismay at the prospect of children being removed from impoverished, anguished parents over a shaky internet link, without the benefit of a lawyer at hand to advise them. Vulnerable mothers and fathers, sometimes barely more than children themselves, would have little choice but to participate in a scary legal process via a smartphone, worrying every second that their data would run out, and with no means of logging back into the hearing if it did. The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory published a rapid review of remote hearings; in one example researchers were told of a woman who had just delivered her baby, who had to attend a hearing to decide about its immediate removal while she was still in hospital, in a side room, without her lawyer by her side. Soon after, in an important judgment about a different case listed for a remote hearing, the most senior family judge in the land, Sir Andrew McFarlane, decided it could not “properly or fairly be conducted” without a mother’s physical presence before a judge in a courtroom. A postage-stamp sized image of multiple parties in a line at the top of a screen did not allow a judge to properly assess the evidence, he said: some life-changing decisions could not be safely made via Skype.
In the wake of that ruling, judges across the country adjourned a slew of imminent final hearings and contested cases where cross-examination would be involved. But in doing so, a backlog of family cases began to pile up: everyone in the system knew that children and their parents would come under severe emotional strain from the ensuing delays. The tension between ensuring the absolute human right to a fair trial and children’s right to live in safety may never have been more tightly stretched. Nevertheless, emergency hearings had to go ahead no matter what.
May: Justice by Zoom
On a Thursday morning in May, Judge Stephen Wildblood, barristers, solicitors, a children’s Guardian and Bristol City Council social workers logged into a Zoom call. The media – me – was also in attendance. A little girl had been hospitalised with an unexplained condition. Rushed to A&E at the weekend, the 72-hour limit of the police protection powers under which she was discharged into emergency foster care was about to expire. It was not safe, social workers said, for the child to go home. They wanted to keep her in care while they investigated.
Also logged onto the call was the girl’s mother.
She was young, looked to be in her 20s. On my laptop screen, her face appeared red-raw from crying. She looked completely exhausted. By contrast with the suited lawyers and professionals at this virtual hearing, she was wearing a tired-looking t-shirt, and it seemed as if she was accessing the meeting from her bedroom: many parents who end up embroiled in the family justice system are in poverty and live in bedsits or hostels.
Everyone was respectful and as kind as they could be. But the young woman was completely alone. Unlike in court, where her solicitor would be by her side, today her lawyer was miles away in her own home office. Presumably because she didn’t own a laptop or tablet, the mother attended this critically important hearing using just the screen on her phone.
It was only after three lawyers had made their submissions that the judge realised her connection had dropped out. Nobody knew how much she hadn’t heard.
This was clearly not good. The judge tried to log the mother back in. It didn’t work. The local authority barrister tried. Not happening. The judge said he would try a different method. Again, no contact could be made.
It took another few minutes for this woman to be logged back into her own hearing. The judge then checked if she had heard what her own barrister said. “No,” came the answer.
“Did you hear what the [child’s] guardian’s barrister said?”
“No,” she said, distressed.
The judge had to ask the lawyers to go through their points all over again.
This all added ten minutes to the process. I thought about how agonising it must be for any parent faced with losing the care of their child not to have the reassurance of sitting next to their solicitor who could take them, minute by minute, through what was happening. And at a human level, it is hard to watch anyone suffer in this way, alone, with no opportunity for contact with another human being.
Judge Wildblood made the care order. But this young woman would not see her daughter in person that day. And nobody could tell her when she might be able to: all contact now happens by phone or via Skype, Zoom or FaceTime. A hidden cost of this pandemic is that virtually none of the 78,000 children being looked after by the state have been able to hug their mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters since 23 March.
That case was just one of a spike in child protection referrals that suddenly hit Bristol’s East team at the end of May, almost overwhelming its social workers. “That week was just horrendous,” recalls Elena Castanares. “We often work overtime, but that week we worked late every night and through the weekend, supported by our colleagues, police and a paediatrician.’ It has, she says, been somewhat quieter since – but the Children’s Commissioner warned in early May that when schools returned, teachers would see sharp rise in children who had suffered abuse or neglect during lockdown, with a matching peak in workload for all professionals concerned with their wellbeing and safety.
Girl of 13, carer to her mother with mental health needs:
“This student lives with her mum and two younger siblings, who she takes to primary school and then returns home. Social services have recently closed a Child in Need plan. Home visits conducted on week two of lockdown. Student answered the door wearing dirty school uniform, younger siblings were holding on to her. Mum leant out of the window to acknowledge she was home. Hallway to the house looked unkempt and the children’s clothes needed washing. Mum has not collected the free school meals our student is entitled to. Student does not have a phone – mum does with limited internet connection but will not let her use it. She is not able to access work and does not have paper or pens. The student was invited into school and the immediate reaction was ‘yes please, can I come in every day?’ Student has since accessed a hot meal every day, and learning, and could be regularly asked about home.”
Domestic abuse is so rife throughout society that only a very small percentage of parents and children suffering violence, coercion and control in their homes will ever be known to social workers. And as thousands of jobs were lost nationwide, as money got tight and as food became scarce, the pressures on parents ratcheted up. By the end of May, the dire warnings of domestic abuse charities at the start of the pandemic had tragically come to pass: domestic abuse killings (some including children) had more than doubled on their normal, already appalling rate. One inner city court centre confirmed that applications for domestic abuse injunctions had soared, a situation the President of the family division of the high court soon said was mirrored in other major cities.
Very young children seemed to be at particularly acute risk of harm: a Whitehall source and a senior NHS source said that there had been a rise in deaths of babies that was being investigated (official numbers will take some months to be published). The Child Safeguarding Practice Review panel tweeted that “The threats to babies are even more worrying in lockdown” and is soon to carry out a review of non-accidental injuries in infants under the age of one.
At the coalface, a Gloucestershire GP who is the safeguarding lead in her practice explains that “the kids who are known to safeguarding, they’re being seen and it’s being done well, but for the other kids, the ones just under the [child protection] threshold, it’s been much harder. All the supports have been kicked away. And I’m just on the sidelines waiting for them to meet the threshold.”
In the last few weeks, the GP says, “there has been a real uptick in behavioural concerns: parents phoning saying ‘my kid’s hitting me, he’s beating up his little brother, I can’t get him to sleep… they’re turning to their GP whereas they usually go to education or to health visitors.” But the health visitor service is now closed for face-to-face visits. And that worries her.
One “incredibly loving” single mum with a baby and a four year old on her list get a weekly visit from a nursery nurse as part of the health visiting service. “Several times, this mum’s been assessed through safeguarding, and she’s been just below the threshold [for social services help],” says the GP. “I am absolutely certain those kids are still only at home with her because of that health visitor contact and very frequent visits to us. Now she’s trying to homeschool them, with one mobile phone that’s pay as you go.” The doctor sighs with utter frustration. “I’ve made enquiries to see if we can get the four-year-old back to nursery earlier, but was told that he didn’t meet the criteria. That family isn’t under safeguarding yet, but I remember saying to a colleague, ‘they’re not now, but they will be by the end of this.’”
June: Life beyond lockdown
As May gives way to June, the child protection landscape remains partial and uncertain. Underscoring fears that some children at serious risk of harm have become invisible as a result of the pandemic, government figures released this month show that in April and May 2020 – taking in nine weeks of lockdown – fewer under-18s were the subject of applications to remove them into care than for the same period over the past five years.
At Brighton and Hove City Council, while Natasha Watson says the dip she saw in social workers wanting to apply for care orders has now reverted to pre-lockdown levels, “we’re doing more emergency applications”. This is the most worrying way for a social worker to ask a family court to remove a child, because it means a serious, urgent incident has occured.
In Birmingham, by mid-June, social worker Alison Taylor says she’s “definitely seeing” that life got worse for some of her families by this stage of the pandemic, and some have escalated into crisis. She links this directly to Covid. “Parents struggling with significant mental health issues, where they would have been able to manage with the respite of children going to school and having regular contact with mental health teams… that’s all dropped away,” she says. “It’s exacerbated their vulnerabilities and reduced their capacity [to cope].” Worryingly, Taylor is also now getting significant numbers of referrals about families who have never needed social services help before.And during lockdown, it’s police who have made ‘the bulk” of the child protection calls she’s received, she explains. “Call-outs for domestic abuse, or physical abuse to children, [calls to] hospitals with concerns about non-accidental injury, children hospitalised, stabbings, mental health [incidents]…”
School referrals, by contrast, “have dropped off significantly.”
Safeguarding thresholds for social workers to get involved have changed too. “Where before we might have been able to manage the risks by putting intensive family support in place, we have to consider whether enough [services are] available, or do we need to progress that to statutory intervention?” she says.
As schools continue to wrestle with conflicting government directions about when and how they can reopen, and calls for them to do so become more compelling by the day, the family justice system is, with deep discomfort, having to grapple with the reality that courts will not be fully open until the back end of the year – at the earliest – rather than the three months originally hoped for. This means complex, contested family cases which had been put off for the sake of fairness will either have to be heard remotely, or vulnerable children will continue to live in limbo, with no idea what their future holds.
And professionals across the social work, family law and education worlds who have worked themselves into the ground to protect the most vulnerable children, and at the same time, offer support and a fair process for their desperately struggling parents, ultimately know that they will not have succeeded for all. But many have been creative and persistent in their efforts to ensure that the good outcome everyone had worked so hard for was not derailed as the pandemic struck. In Bristol, Elena Castanares tells of a little boy whose carefully planned move to adopters almost fell through because of Covid restrictions. “At the last second we had it blocked by a service manager who was very cautious, but all came together and convinced them that we had thought it through very carefully. And yes, he moved,” she says with a smile.
Solicitor Emily Boardman has another example. “I’ve got one case of a little baby where the direct contact has continued all the way through,” she says, clearly delighted. “And that’s because we have a social worker who really wanted to return the baby to mum.”
Still, devastatingly, in some situations where young children were about to be adopted, decisions taken by children’s services because of Covid restrictions are piling heartbreak upon heartbreak. “We are hearing of a number of cases where so called ‘farewell contact’ has been cancelled – parents and siblings have been told saying goodbye to a child can’t happen physically because of the crisis,” says Cathy Ashley, chief executive of the charity Family Rights Group. “And the idea that your last time spent with your baby or toddler would be virtual is just too, too awful. We raised it with the Department for Education and they said they were aware it’s happening.” She is almost lost for words.
Told of this, Boardman sounds aghast. “It absolutely shouldn’t happen, that you can’t have that farewell contact in person,” she says. “Where on earth are their lawyers? They should be fighting it.” Meanwhile, the pandemic may have imposed new ways of working for the duration of the crisis, but she says there must be careful evaluation before any become accepted practice. “I don’t want decisions to keep remote hearings being made on the back of civil servants saying it’s cheaper.”
As the government struggles to work out how to ensure a safe return to school for all children, teachers across the Harris Federation know their recent training in how to deal with children’s trauma will soon be put to the test. “That trauma-informed approach is how we’re going to lead our recovery curriculum when the children come back,” says the Harris headteacher, with determination. Month after month of being shut out of school and locked down at home has “been awful” for students. “They desperately miss their teachers. We’ve worked incredibly hard, but we’ve had nothing from the government. No laptops have arrived, despite promises. The academic gap we have been trying to reverse is going to reappear.” Her anxiety is plain. “I am genuinely very worried about how long it will take for us to rebuild these children’s self-esteem, which was fragile in the first place.”
As for the many thousands of children who will have been physically hurt, sexually abused and emotionally damaged as they’ve slipped out of sight, it is beyond question, from what every professional says, that only when schools go back do they stand a chance of anyone coming to their rescue.
Portrait Steve Morgan for Tortoise other photographs Getty Images