How Northern Ireland is protecting children at risk during Covid-19 pandemic
AMONGST the raft of grim Covid-19 statistics is sobering evidence that more children are now in care and on the protection register than before the pandemic. Bimpe Archer reports
THE Department of Health made a commitment in May to switch from quarterly reporting to weekly child protection updates amid fears lockdown restrictions were seeing more children than ever suffering neglect, physical and sexual abuse in their own homes.
Those fears have been realised with the data putting those numbers consistently above pre-pandemic levels - there were 2,356 on the Child Protection Register for the week ending November 2 - 4.9 per cent higher than the latest official figure prior to Covid-19.
The number of children being referred to social services has been consistently above `normal' levels since the pandemic began - even during the period when experts say abuse and neglect was being under-reported.
The Department of Health is seeking additional funding to support children's homes during the virus's second wave.
To the general public such data is disquieting, for those at the coal face, however, these figures represent success.
No one was expecting families grappling with complex emotional, financial and social pressures to thrive during the one of the most destabilising periods in living history.
The real challenge would be getting children in vulnerable circumstances the support and protection they would need.
In May, Andy McClenaghan from the British Association of Social Workers NI (BASW) warned: "There is a deluge incoming for child protection."
Like domestic violence and other victim support services, social workers feared a drop in referrals because of lockdown and were urging "community vigilance".
"We know that there has been a spike in domestic violence - there have been four domestic homicides since lockdown - it is expected that child abuse and neglect are increasing under lockdown. There will be a surge in demand for service once lockdown is finished," Mr McClenaghan told The Irish News.
His colleague Martina Jordan said social workers are still dealing with the predicted `deluge'.
"Initially numbers (of referrals for social worker intervention) dipped quite significantly, but they're back up and higher than pre-pandemic levels."
And they are now working in a completely different landscape, with large numbers of children still not back in the school and youth group settings where red flags could be spotted.
Analysis by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils continue to be worst affected by disruption.
In areas with the highest rates of the virus, as many as four in 10 secondary pupils were unable to attend school during October and it found that in the first half of the autumn term the most deprived areas in Britain and Northern Ireland were more likely to have lower attendance levels.
"Social workers would have used the support of community-based organisations and there would have been a lot of referrals from people within the community and coming from families who are not seeing the children as regularly," Ms Jordan said.
"We have to work with what is at our disposal."
She said, like many other professions, the pandemic has required social workers to become more innovative in how they offer families support.
"Social workers are used to operating under high levels of stress. At any time there are high numbers of cases and they're quite good at coping with the increase in referrals.
"Their ways of working have had to be very adaptive and creative. They are working differently to what would normally be happening and also make sure they are looking after themselves and keeping themselves safe."
Among the solutions by social workers have been " meeting in the garden and sitting on steps outside the home" to carry out assessment, reviews and offer support.
There were, she said, increased levels of anxiety initially when they were hampered by a lack of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and concerned about the prospect of transmitting the deadly virus from home to another.
They were also worried about the "hidden harm" taking place behind doors closed by the lockdown, and how to access families.
However, Ms Jordan said "statutory bodies collaborated really, really well in conjunction with police and other agencies and were able to ensure that children were safeguarded".
Despite grappling with an alarming medical crisis, the Department of Health responded to the potential social crisis with targeted investment during pandemic period.
This has included additional funding up to £4.6 million per annum to "increase capacity within family and children's services across five Health and Social Care Trusts to address unallocated cases" and more than £1.1million to support and increase capacity at residential children's home facilities - at a time when unaccompanied asylum seeking children were still arriving during the pandemic.
There has also been additional financial support to foster carers to help them meet additional needs of their foster children during and a one-off £100 payment to foster carers.
Funding was also released to support 292 vulnerable young people aged over 16 living in supported accommodation projects or independent flats in the community "at particular risk of social isolation, financial hardship and detrimental impacts to their wellbeing".
There have also been legislative changes to allow social workers longer timescales to complete their work and allowing the use of technology in place of face-to-face contact.
The last, Ms Jordan said, has been invaluable.
"Family support is being is being offered by social workers in both the statutory and voluntary sector. They are checking in via video calls and home visits where possible and it had been very well received by families.
"It is providing early intervention which is actually reducing the need for cases to be progressed as child protection referrals."
She said social work has long faced challenges of "huge levels of bureaucracy" and "adequate resources" and in the long term "really needs a root and branch system reform".
"These issues are always there and that hadn't changed. But in spite of these challenges social workers have gone over and beyond. It is amazing how well they have performed, setting aside their own safety.
"They have been very resourceful and have been taking on more cases than normal even though their caseloads are already high, but employers have been incredibly supportive.
"Social workers are working huge hours right now. We will not rest until we know that every child is protected and safe. This is what we do as social workers. That is what we live and breathe."