In many ways it has been little surprise to hear that the corporate director for children and young people at Kent CC Matt Dunkley has warned there could be an increase of 250% in referrals of children needing to be supported and kept safe when lockdown is eased further - shocking as that may be. Issues which have emerged under lockdown such as mental health issues, behavioural problems and children experiencing trauma, are increasingly just surfacing now. Some vulnerabilities and the effects of children and families not getting the usual support may take months or years to be fully revealed, so the challenges of supporting children and families are far from over.
Our own conversations with staff at councils revealed a similar picture, akin to a wave gathering pace beneath the surface. The services which support children and families are going to face huge demand as lockdown measures are eased. This is why as the country eases the lockdown measures and inches towards normality, it’s clear that early help must be an integral part of the COVID-19 recovery. Fundamentally this warning highlights why councils need the resources to cope with this spike in demand for services.
When we spoke to councils, it became clear services face a double hit, not only from more families needing more support to deal with a wider range of problems, but also from the knock-on consequences of fewer people having received the support that would usually have been available at key moments in their lives.
We know councils have been working hard to provide the best support possible in the circumstances. One positive development in recent months has been the rapidity with which local authorities have adapted and innovated, forging new partnerships and collaborations and the hopefully enduring breaking down of silos between agencies. These could be a positive and lasting change.
However, we know major challenges remain. We still don’t know how big the wave of demand will be. Yes, councils have done a good job in testing circumstances – doing what they can remotely or with skeleton staff – but it will take time for the full picture of the damage down by the lockdown to become fully apparent. The subtler signs of abuse, neglect or domestic violence, for example, are simply much harder to spot without home visits or other face-to-face contact.
Understandably, and rightly, there will be calls for acute services, including children’s social care, to receive extra funding and support. This is correct and necessary, as these children will continue to need individual support and protection.
However, it will not be sufficient. Acute services cannot simply absorb the additional burden created by a swell of demand as the lockdown eases. And as our research makes clear, there will be increased demand from families who don’t meet the criteria for support from statutory services, but who are wrestling with new and pressing needs created by the strains of the lockdown such as increased family conflict or children whose social and emotional development has suffered, or who have been impacted by the effects of previous support becoming unavailable.
I believe early intervention and early help must be an integral part of the recovery from COVID-19, to support families before problems become entrenched and to mitigate the risk of escalation into statutory services. Without a significant uplift in funding, it’s likely that many local authorities and their partners will struggle to manage this increased demand and ensure that children and families receive effective and appropriate support.
It’s good, and to be welcomed, that this issue has been highlighted by Mr Dunkley. He’s far from alone. Many others are in a similar boat.
Donna Molloy is director of policy & practice at the Early Intervention Foundation