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THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON VULNERABLE CHILDREN: What is the need?

The topic that Kids Matter has most often been asked to discuss in resonse to coronavirus/lockdown is the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable children. We’ve found that the discussion naturally evolves into four different sub-topics, which we have formulated into questions: What is the need? What is the opportunity? What is the challenge? What can we do? As you might expect, there is a lot to say! So, we have created a four-part written series to answer these questions, with insights from Dr Eli Gardner – clinical psychologist and director at Kids Matter. This is the first in the series – What is the need?


Six months after lockdown, facts and figures are emerging as research reports on the aftermath of lockdown, and what we know is that what was an already fragile situation for many vulnerable children in our country, is now worse.

In 2019, the Children’s Commissioner’s Childhood Vulnerability Report estimated 2.3 million children to be living with risk because of a vulnerable family background. Within this group, 829,000 children are thought to be ‘invisible’ to services and are thus without support. Another 761,000 children – around a third – are known to services, but their level of support is unclear. Adding these two groups together, means that there are 1.6 million children from a vulnerable family background for whom the support is either patchy or non-existent.

As it was, we were facing an unprecedented spike in demand for services (up 78 percent in last 10 years) as well as huge decrease in funding particularly in early intervention, in spite of research showing that early intervention is the most effective way to prevent long term issues in children.

Then…

…coronavirus.

And lockdown.

It was never far-fetched to expect the impact of social isolation on children, particularly those who are vulnerable, to be significant. In a recent article appearing in Premier Youth and Children’s Work, Clinical Child Psychologist Dr Eli Gardner said:

One does not have to think too hard to imagine the psychological impact of pre-existing familial trauma exacerbated by a situation where fraught relationships have no room to breathe. Increased reports of domestic violence throughout lockdown is one such example of a traumatic experience that can impair functioning in children right through adulthood if left unchecked.

Children need love and firm boundaries in order to flourish; whilst children in stable families might have been mostly fine even amidst the change and uncertainty of pandemic life, those thrust into the chaos of unstable, stressful or even toxic situations at home (for six months!) would likely have struggled to thrive.

The challenges facing children and families at the moment are crudely two-fold: mental wellbeing and children’s education – both of which have been hugely adversely affected by the current crisis. Here’s what we already know and can likely expect after life in lockdown and 7-odd months of overt pandemic:

  • Child poverty is on the increase as unemployment rises and we head for what has been called “the deepest recession since records began”. The Trussell Trust has said that despite unprecedented demand for charity food since lockdown (with 100,000 people using food banks for the first time between April and June), ending furlough in October is likely trigger a rise in food bank use of at least 61% (equivalent to a year-on-year increase of 300,000 parcels). Much of the economic pain is, in fact, still to come as the Job Retention Scheme phases out and universal credit covers only 53% of previous earnings. Growing up in poverty can be a constant source of stress and worry for the children who experience it. The average income of single parents has fallen by 20 percent and 2 million children are in families where hours are reduced, 88,000 of whom are in families where jobs are lost.
  • Increased pressures on parents narrows their bandwidth to deal with difficult child behaviour (in particular) that was likely already hard to manage before Covid-19. This means the behaviour is likely to get worse as children are very dependent on their parents to provide a loving, safe environment and to manage their daily life.
  • We can expect to see a rise in child abuse and neglect as vulnerable children have spent more time in the home (and may continue to do so in  the case of self-isolation or second wave lockdown) with parents who are worried about their health and money, and are bored, isolated, or struggling with their own partners or worse. Children may be experiencing the impact of their parents’ mental health deterioration or substance abuse. Being back at school might help this situation slightly but the Children’s Commissioner has warned that vulnerable children will nonetheless slip out of view if their wellbeing is not given priority.
  • In addition, we already know there has been an increase in domestic abuse which of course has a devastating impact on anyone who experiences it, but what is often overlooked is the equally devastating impact on children. It can be painful and traumatising for a child to see someone they love abused, and can also have long term effects on children, increasing the risk of them experiencing poor mental health as they grow up.
  • We would also expect to see increased risk for those children with special needs and/or very challenging behaviour as they will be confused by all that is going on, have less support from outside, a disruption to routines and possibly sub-optimal parenting.
  • Children in care who are living in long-term placements where they are supported by loving carers may be managing well during this period however, for many, face to face contact with their families may not have gone ahead during lockdown and many of these children will have experienced trauma, yet during this time access to therapeutic support will be much more difficult.
  • We know from various agencies working with adolescents that young people are reporting a deterioration in their mental health due to social isolation, combined with the anxiety of missing exams, and stress at home not balanced by time out and with friends. Therefore, we will see an increase in depression, anxiety and suicide in young people.
  • There may also be increased risks of cyberbullying and online grooming as young people spend more time online.

Crucially, there are fewer contacts with agencies that would otherwise pick up children at risk, which means that issues can go unchecked longer than they might have. For vulnerable families the loss of support networks, alongside the anxiety and financial pressures caused by Covid-19, could be what tips them from being able to cope, to reaching crisis point. Vulnerable children have been cut off from many of the sources of support that they might previously have had – schools, children’s centres etc. and most programmes designed to help families are not designed to be remote so there is a sudden halt to what support there was whilst agencies scramble to adapt. Only very few interventions were already being delivered remotely.

This will all have a cascade effect for vulnerable children, whose wellbeing will be placed further at risk by a pre-existing discrepancy in educational attainment between children growing up in poorer areas and their wealthier counterparts that is likely to be exacerbated by lockdown. And to further complicate the issue, the vast majority of children decline academically over the long summer break but for disadvantaged children, the effect is particularly pronounced.

It is a near certainty that the closure of schools will widen the disadvantage gap further still. Some key points to be aware of (researched by the Sutton Trust) that suggest we have some significant issues developing for vulnerable children especially with regards to their education in the at least medium term if not longer, are (during lockdown):

  • In the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers reported that more than a third of their students learning from home did not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning, compared to only 2% in the most affluent state schools. 12% of those in the most deprived schools also reported that more than a third of their students did not have adequate internet access.
  • 50% of teachers in private schools reported the receipt of more than three quarters of work back, compared with 27% in the most advantaged state schools, and just 8% in the least advantaged state schools.
  • Teachers in the most deprived schools were also more than twice as likely to say that work their students sent in was of a much lower quality than normal (15% vs 6%).

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that school closures are almost certain to increase educational inequalities. Pupils from better-off families are spending longer on home learning; they have access to more individualised resources such as private tutoring or chats with teachers; they have a better home set-up for distance learning; and their parents report feeling more able to support them.

The impact is severe and the need is great. That much is clear. To continue this conversation – to figure out how we address the wellbeing of our most vulnerable children – some questions need to be answered:

What is the opportunity?

What is the challenge?

What can we do?

CLICK ON THE LINKS to proceed with the discussion!

 

Kids Matter is a programme that engages with families and young children before crisis point – it strengthens families by giving mums and dads the tools to be competent, confident parents or caregivers. To get involved, as a volunteer or by financially supporting our programme, please contact us at info@kidsmatter.org.uk

Photo by Marisa Howenstine on Unsplash

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