Child protection referrals have surged in the months following the UK’s first lockdown as local councils report an increase in demand for mental health and family services, The Independent can reveal.
New data shows more than 630 vulnerable young people a day were being referred to councils’ children’s services in July, August and September – marking an increase of 15 per cent – or 7,518 referrals – compared to the three previous months when schools and services.
Social workers told The Independent their caseloads were at an “all-time high”, but that the cases they were seeing of domestic violence, alcohol abuse and anxieties around coronavirus were only the “tip of the iceberg”.
Council leaders said they were seeing the effects of an “invisible crisis” that played out over the spring, with particular demand for family services. Almost nine in 10 councils said they were projecting an overspend on their children’s social care budget this year, designed for support and intervention for vulnerable young people.
The figures, from a survey by the County Councils Network (CCN), which represents all 25 county councils and 11 county unitary authorities across England, showed domestic abuse and neglect were the two main reasons for children’s services referrals over lockdown and the summer months.
Mental health also emerged as a growing issue, with almost two-thirds of councils surveyed (64 per cent) saying that issues among both the parent and/or the child was one of the top reasons for referral over the last few months.
One council said it was receiving over 22 referrals a week due to mental health issues on average since the first lockdown ended – an increase of 96 per cent. Alcohol or substance abuse was another major factor behind increasing referrals, the survey showed.
As well as a surge in child protection referrals, councils said the pandemic had contributed to a rise in costs for foster care placements for vulnerable children, which was contributing to the overspend, alongside increased costs for staffing to cover for those self-isolating.
It comes after child protection referrals plummeted by more than 50 per cent in some areas of England at the start of April, as the majority of young people were no longer coming into contact with staff such as teachers who would normally raise protection concerns.
Minny, a social worker in a London borough, told The Independent her team’s caseloads were now higher than ever, with the most common issues flagged being domestic violence, alcohol abuse and mental health problems – and that the workforce was struggling with the rising demand.
“It went quiet for a bit, but when schools reopened there was a sharp rise. Now our caseloads are at an all-time high. It feels like we’re just trying to keep a lid on everything, jumping from case to case just trying to contain things,” she said.
The social worker, who started working at the London borough in February this year, said job losses and financial difficulties caused by the pandemic had created extra pressure and strains in households, which were causing arguments and sometimes causing families to break down.
“Lots of children have been talking about their parents drinking and then arguing. Families are spending a lot more time together in the home. Before, children weren’t exposed to things because they had other things to do – they might be going to clubs after school, spending time with friends – whereas now everyone is in the home environment all the time,” she said.
“People need to get out and see other people. The clubs for the children need to come back. They’re really missing out on having those extra activities. For some kids, that’s the only stimulation they’re getting outside of school.”
She said there had also been a considerable rise in mental health referrals, usually around depression or low moods among teenagers or anxieties among parents about allowing their children to leave the house.
“I had a call today from a mother who won’t let her child go to school. She’s just so scared. She’s asking the school to send someone into her home to teach them. We’re trying to tell her the child needs that social experience as well,” Minny said.
“Low moods and a lack of motivation are also being reported among teenagers. The period out of school was so unsettling for some of them. I also have two children in my caseload with autism. They’ve stopped speaking, even now that they’re back in school every day.”
The new data shows that the number of referrals in the three months after lockdown – 58,334 – is only slightly higher than those in the three months prior to the restrictions being introduced – 57,770 – but campaigners warn that it is likely to increase further.
Minny added: “I feel like we’re on the tip of the iceberg, and it feels like we’re ready to combust, the pressures, so much coming in, but there are no more workers. Our numbers are increasing. We go in to do assessments and then more things are coming up so cases can’t be closed.”
The children’s commissioner Anne Longfield warned during the first lockdown that resources would be needed for councils and schools to meet the needs of thousands of pupils who are facing heightened risk during this time, as many children had become effectively “invisible”.
Responding to the new findings, Ms Longfield told The Independent: “These reports from councils prove what we have been highlighting over this difficult year that the closure of schools and other vital services meant families under pressure, and children needing help from social care services went largely unnoticed, but most definitely hadn’t gone away.
“Schools now they are back, have returned to that crucial role of being one of the referral points for children struggling at home. It’s one reason I am so glad schools are open, and should continue to stay open.”
The commissioner warned that children’s needs may have grown much higher than previous years as a result of the measures enacted to contain the virus, adding: “What we don’t know and may still see in coming months is the effect that lockdown, and school closures had on children and families who may have been just about managing before lockdown, but as a result are not now managing.”
A separate survey from the CCN revealed just 35 per cent of councils would be able to protect their children’s services if there is no extra funding for local authorities in the Spending Review, with one in five saying they would have to reduce support for vulnerable children “moderately or severely”.
Cllr Keith Glazier, children and young people spokesperson for the CCN, said the impacts of the pandemic would be “far reaching” children, and called on the government to renew its Troubled Families programme, alongside targeted investment for children’s social care.
“During the lockdown, we feared an invisible crisis and that abuse and other issues were going unchecked behind closed doors and since the first lockdown has ended, we have seen a rise in referrals,” he said.
“The emotional and financial trauma of the pandemic on families is clear to see in the referrals since the country started opening back up in the summer, with domestic abuse and neglect the two main reasons that our help is sought.
“Worryingly, we are also seeing a rise in mental health concerns and alcohol abuse – both of which can be attributed to the impact of coronavirus.”
A government spokesperson said: “We know that many of our most vulnerable children, young people and families have felt additional pressures at this time which is why their safety and wellbeing remains our priority.
“We kept schools, nurseries and colleges open to them during the lockdown period, and have focused on getting every pupil back into the classroom full time this term because it is often the best place for them. We are supporting social workers and councils to respond to these changing pressures, by making £4.6bn available to councils and by bringing back thousands of social workers onto a temporary register to help on the frontline where needed.”