Written evidence submitted by Action for Children (COR0073)
Action for Children is a leading UK children’s charity. In the last year, we worked with over 387,000 children, young people and families across more than 475 services, ranging from fostering to children’s centre provision. We offer a specialist therapeutic counselling service to children aged four to 16 who have been affected by domestic abuse, and we also support survivors and their children through our intensive family support services and children’s centres, where we deliver programmes such as Caring Dads and Recovery Toolkit.
Action for Children welcomes the opportunity to respond to this inquiry. Our submission draws on our extensive experience in supporting children and young people affected by domestic abuse and a range of other issues, and is informed by feedback from services staff supporting families directly at this challenging time. We also spoke to a small number of our local authority partners.
1.1. As many organisations have highlighted, there are fears that the lockdown could be placing families at increased risk. Refuge reported a 700% rise in calls to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline in a single day.[i] The number of domestic homicides is far higher than the average rate for the time of year.[ii] In one area where Action for Children deliver services, the community police were clearing their caseloads because they expect an uplift in reports of domestic abuse.
1.2. However, a number of Action for Children staff overseeing early help services for struggling families were concerned by the fact that, despite this, there had been a reduction in domestic abuse reports to the police in their area. One local authority we spoke to in the South West shared that the police had seen a 22% reduction in the number of calls relating to domestic abuse, in line with a wider drop-off in calls across all crime. Referrals to specialist domestic abuse services had also gone down in some of the areas the professionals we spoke to were based in (although they had slightly increased in others). Under lockdown, victims may be unable to reach out for help, with their movements under increased surveillance.
1.3. We would emphasise that domestic abuse has a devastating impact on children and young people, and children will be part of many households where it is an issue. Children can suffer from depression and suicidal tendencies after having such experiences, and struggle to form healthy and loving adult relationships in later life.[iii] Analysis of the longitudinal Millennium Cohort Study commissioned by Action for Children shows that children whose parents reported experiencing domestic violence when children were aged three reported 30 per cent higher than average antisocial behaviours at age 14.[iv]
1.4. When we talk about the impact of domestic abuse on children, we mean the effect that living in a household where one adult is being abusive and possibly violent to another adult would have on a child. However, there can also be major overlap between domestic abuse and the direct harm of children, for example, through neglect and physical or emotional abuse.[v] As we will go on to explore, we do not think the government has taken children’s experiences of domestic abuse into account as effectively as required in the initial response.
1.5. Referrals to children’s social care have also dipped. The Guardian found that child protection referrals had fallen by more than 50% in some areas.[vi] Social workers in one county in the South East had been dealing with 25% of their normal daily level of referrals. Yet we know that risks within the home have not lessened. In fact, one local authority we spoke to in the South West shared that their family support services were reporting higher levels of family conflict and stress, with increased referrals to adult mental health services. School closures and lockdown generally mean that children are simply not being seen by the professionals who would be raising child protection concerns in normal circumstances. One local authority we spoke to in the North East also said that the rate of referrals had significantly reduced since the lockdown measures had come into effect. They are currently looking at how they can better use their data to identify vulnerable families and take a proactive approach to intervention.
1.6. It is welcome that the government has made it clear that vulnerable children still have a school place, but it is evident that very few families are taking this up. In Kent, between 10 and 20% of vulnerable children eligible for a school place attended school during the week before the Easter holidays, and in Hertfordshire that figure stood at 12%. One local authority we spoke to in the South West did say that in the last week figures were looking more promising. However, the government must further explore ways to ensure that families feel safe to send their children to school, and that children who are vulnerable continue to be protected and supported by their school.
1.7. The focus has understandably been on schools and nurseries, but Action for Children staff overseeing early help services in one area of England raised the fact that very young children could be getting overlooked. They reported that a multi-agency triage is now held daily (where it used to be weekly), and a list of known vulnerable children and families is discussed to ensure that children are safe and families are being reached out to. Schools and nurseries feed into this list, but there was a gap for 0-2s. Action for Children, along with public health colleagues, have developed a new 0-2 pathway to identify concerns so that infants’ needs are responded to in a timely way; this includes a fast-track crisis response where families need immediate support. Multi-agency communication has also been opened up so that concerns can be shared and early support offered. However we would highlight concerns that professionals may not be as aware of emerging risks to 0-2s in other areas, given that infants are not within the remit of schools and nurseries.
1.8. Not only that, but the government define vulnerable children as those with a social worker or on Education, Health and Care Plans. Our staff were anxious about those children who may not be known to children’s social care yet, either receiving early help services or no support at all. Department for Education figures show that of those children who died or were seriously harmed in the last year, only 13% were on a child protection plan at the time.[vii] One local authority has had a community response line set up in light of the current crisis, and the team working this line liaise closely with those working the children’s services line, sharing information that comes in which is pertinent to the safety and wellbeing of children.
1.9. Despite referrals going down overall, early help workers at Action for Children expressed concern that when they did escalate a case, for example, due to the risk of extreme emotional neglect, children’s social care often pushed back. As a result of the increased pressure on the workforce that the Covid-19 outbreak has wrought, the government has advised local authorities to prioritise support for the children at greatest risk. One local authority Action for Children works with has been working to identify whether any Children In Need cases can be safely de-escalated. However, as the Office of the Children’s Commissioner has pointed out, higher thresholds will mean assessments that could have exposed serious harm will not go ahead.[viii]
1.10. Recommendation: The Government must explore ways of ensuring vulnerable children can attend school and so benefit from the protection and support schools can offer. The Government must also ensure children who may need greater levels of help but do not have a social worker – for example, children using early help services – can attend school. The needs of vulnerable children and the important role school can play in their lives must factor highly in planning around reopening schools.
1.11. Recommendation: The Government must address concerns that professionals may not be as aware of the risks to 0-2s in their local area, given that infants are not within the remit of schools and nurseries. Rules around birth registrations have also been relaxed, and health visitors are undertaking home visits in person much less frequently.
2.1. Children’s social care and wider support services for children and families, like those Action for Children offers, have adapted quickly to the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown. Action for Children now delivers support to families over the phone and online.
2.2. This does present challenges. One of Action for Children’s Service Coordinators who works closely with families affected by domestic abuse commented that it is difficult to gauge the true situation within the family home, as staff cannot pick up on visual signs in the same way, with parents more in control of what is seen and unseen by the person on the other end of the screen. It is especially hard to engage with children; normally, a professional may be able to take them to a safe space and build a relationship with them through play, and so encourage them to share how they’re feeling, but this is not possible in the current circumstances. The lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) also makes it difficult for social workers or family support workers to undertake home visits if this is necessary to ensure a child or young person is safe or better support a family in crisis.
2.3. Action for Children has worked hard to ensure we can continue to offer our specialist therapeutic counselling service for children who have been affected by domestic abuse. The waiting list is already very long, with double the number of children the service actually has the capacity to see over the coming 12 months. However, in another area where Action for Children offers support to families, the organisation that delivers counselling support to children has unfortunately been unable to continue and put their sessions on hold. This means that children who desperately need support to recover from their experiences of domestic abuse can no longer access it.
2.4. Other forms of support have also been affected by the lockdown, meaning that survivors are facing a dearth of help. In one area of the North East, Action for Children delivers such programmes as Caring Dads and Recovery Toolkit through our children’s centres. However, it is challenging to offer these support programmes via digital means, and so the decision has been made to put them on hold. It was felt that with such programmes as Recovery Toolkit, difficult emotions may be brought to the surface which would be hard to handle on your own with our mental resilience being challenged by the current lockdown. Further, there would be no guarantee that an abusive partner might not be overhearing, if they had moved back in unknown to the service practitioners for example.
2.5. This means that waiting lists, already long, will become even longer when the lockdown is lifted, resulting in a surge of demand which specialist services won’t necessarily be able to meet.
2.6. A survey of frontline domestic abuse services that SafeLives undertook in response to the outbreak highlighted a number of important findings. We would particularly emphasise the fact that just under a quarter of (22%) of the services included said they are not able to effectively support adult victims of abuse at the moment, but a far higher proportion – 42% – fed back that they are not able to effectively support child victims of abuse.[ix] Further, of the three-quarters of respondents who said they had had to reduce service delivery due to COVID-19, 18% had cancelled children’s services.
‘All our children groups are cancelled and resources are being posted on Facebook and video calls are being made to all children.’
SafeLives survey respondent
It is evident that specialist domestic abuse services are finding it particularly hard to support child victims of domestic abuse during the current crisis. Yet high numbers of children rely on these services; according to Women’s Aid’s annual survey, 13,787 children used refuge services in 2018/19, compared to 11,489 women, and 187,403 children used community-based services, compared to 156,169 women (this does not account for children supported by community outreach services where their parent does not also receive support).[x] Children cannot be forgotten at this time. This is particularly urgent as even before the current crisis, Women’s Aid had highlighted gaps in provision for women with children.[xi]
2.7. Furthermore, Action for Children’s 2019 report, Patchy, piecemeal and precarious, uncovered significant variability in the level of provision for children and young people affected by domestic abuse both between and within local authorities in England and Wales.[xii] Overall, children faced barriers to accessing support in at least two-thirds of the local authorities that took part in our study, and in over 10 per cent, there were no support services available at all.[xiii] And this was the situation before the pressures created by COVID-19. Women’s Aid has also highlighted the lack of support for children affected.
“So now in the county there is very little on offer. So the only thing that is on offer is that we have the Freedom Programme. There’s nothing for children, at all. Full stop.”
Specialist domestic abuse provider (Women’s Aid)[xiv]
2.8. At the same time, we have known for some time that funding for forms of support specifically for children within specialist domestic abuse services is often precarious. Nearly half of the respondents to Women’s Aid’s Annual Survey (2018/19) were running an area of their domestic abuse service without any dedicated funding; for 27.4% of these respondents, that area without any dedicated funding was children and young people’s domestic abuse services.[xv] As other organisations have highlighted, charities are struggling with reductions in their fundraising income as a result of the current crisis, and so such support for children will be at risk. In two-thirds of the local authorities involved in Action for Children’s research, services for children were dependent on time-limited funding. One of Action for Children’s Children’s Services Managers who fed into this response said that in the three years of working with her local authority commissioner on domestic abuse, support for children affected had always fallen into what she termed the ‘too hard’ basket. More widely, the Department for Education’s most recent analysis of serious case reviews warned that the welfare of children is being ‘imperiled’ by budgetary pressures.[xvi]
2.9. Recommendation: It is understood that securing adequate levels of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) across health and social care is a huge challenge at present. However, if social workers or family support workers need to undertake a home visit in person to make sure a child or young person is safe or to better support a family in crisis, they must have access to adequate protective gear.
3.1. Greater levels of funding would help support child victims of abuse at this time. Yet the government’s action on domestic abuse so far has not had children at its heart. Funding announcements for charities and the specialist domestic abuse and VAWG sectors have been welcome, but the need for funding specifically for support for children impacted by domestic abuse does not seem to have been taken into account, despite the fact that the crisis has severely impacted support for children in particular. The extra £2m that will ‘immediately’ bolster helplines and online support is much needed, but it is unclear how heavily children have factored into the Home Office’s approach. The same is true for the £750m package for charities, and the extra funds as part of this which will allow those most vulnerable to abuse to access support during this difficult period. In terms of online support, a small number of our services staff also suggested that more live online chat options were needed locally.
3.2. This reflects a wider blind spot when it comes to children and domestic abuse. The first iteration of the Home Office guidance for survivors of domestic abuse, published in response to the crisis, did not mention children once. It is encouraging that the version updated on 14th April does cover the impact of domestic abuse on children and signposts the reader to Childline and other organisations offering support, and is much more comprehensive overall. We are also reassured that the Home Office is looking into producing more child-friendly advice aimed directly at children and young people.
3.3. However, we would urge the Home Office to consider children further as part of their new public awareness campaign, At Home Shouldn’t Mean At Risk. This new campaign – whilst we welcome it – should be aimed at children too. We would like to see information made available to children and young people who experience domestic abuse, both those who are exposed to abuse at home, and those who are affected by abuse in their own intimate relationships. This information would need to be accessible to children and young people in terms of both how (content and tone) and where (online and offline platforms) it is communicated.
3.4. Action for Children and local authority staff who fed into our response emphasised that existing difficulties had been thrown into sharper relief by the impact of COVID-19. As the Designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs made clear in her oral evidence, the issues victims and support services are currently facing in the midst of the present crisis reinforces the importance of the provisions within the Domestic Abuse Bill. This is particularly true for the proposed duty on local authorities to deliver support to victims of domestic abuse in accommodation-based services. It is crucial that this duty be extended to all community-based services for adult and child victims of domestic abuse, and not limited to accommodation-based support.
3.5. The staff we spoke to as part of our response to this inquiry, including a Children’s Services Manager in the North East and local authority children’s services commissioner in the South West, emphasised fears that demand will only rise once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. It was emphasised to us that the government not only need to be responsive when the virus is at its peak, but must also begin developing a longer-term strategy for the next 18 months, as families will need support to recover from the strains of self-isolation and the needs those pressures have heightened.
3.6. We would again emphasise that children do not just witness domestic abuse but experience it directly. It is clear that children have not been at the heart of the response to domestic abuse as this crisis unfolded, just as they are not front and centre of the Domestic Abuse Bill. If it was recognised by key agencies such as the police and relevant government departments that children are victims of domestic abuse as well, it may go some way toward ensuring that their needs are considered when responding to emergencies like this. The definition of domestic abuse put forward by the Domestic Abuse Bill must include children when Parliament is ready for the Bill to be debated once again.
3.7. Recommendation: Government must consider support for children when allocating extra funding to support victims of domestic abuse at this time.
3.8. Recommendation: The Home Office must aim its new public awareness campaign, At Home Shouldn’t Mean At Risk, at children and young people too, ensuring relevant information is accessible in terms of both how and where it is communicated.
3.9. Recommendation: The Government must recognise how the current crisis has deepened the existing need for the provisions outlined in the Domestic Abuse Bill, particularly for children. The proposed duty on local authorities must be extended to take account of community-based services, and the definition of domestic abuse as put forward by the Bill must recognise that children and young people experience domestic abuse too.
3.10. Recommendation: The government must begin to develop a long-term strategy for the next 18 months, as local authorities and providers are expecting the level of need to rise exponentially once lockdown measures are lifted and will require coordinated support and resource in order to face the coming challenge
[i] The Observer (Sun 12 Apr 2020) ‘Revealed: surge in domestic violence during Covid-19’. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/12/domestic-violence-surges-seven-hundred-per-cent-uk-coronavirus
[ii] The Guardian (Wed 15 Apr 2020) ‘Domestic abuse killings “more than double” amid Covid-19 lockdown’. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/15/domestic-abuse-killings-more-than-double-amid-covid-19-lockdown
[iii] UNICEF (2006). Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children. Available at: https://www. unicef.org/media/files/BehindClosedDoors.pdf; Office for National Statistics (2017) ‘People who were abused as children are more likely to be abused as an adult’. Available online at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/peoplewhowereabusedaschildrenaremorelikelytobeabusedasanadult/2017-09-27
[iv] Action for Children (2019) Patchy, piecemeal and precarious: support for children affected by domestic abuse. Available online at: https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/media/12382/patchy-piecemeal-and-precarious-support-for-children-affected-by-domestic-abuse.pdf
[v] SafeLives [formerly Caada] (2014) In plain sight: the evidence from children exposed to domestic abuse. Available online at: http://www.safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/In_plain_sight_the_evidence_from_children_exposed_to_domestic_abuse.pdf
[vi] The Guardian (Wed 8 April 2020) ‘Fears for child welfare as protection referrals plummet in England’. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/08/fears-for-child-welfare-as-protection-referrals-plummet-in-england
[vii] Office of the Children’s Commissioner (16th April 2020) ‘What is socially distanced child protection and can it work?’ Available online at https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/2020/04/16/what-is-socially-distanced-child-protection-and-can-it-work/
[ix] SafeLives (2020) Domestic abuse frontline service COVID-19 survey results. Available online at: https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/SafeLives%20survey%20of%20frontline%20domestic%20abuse%20organisations%20for%20COVID-19%2030.03.20_0.pdf
[x] Women’s Aid (2020) The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Annual Audit. Available online at: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/research-and-publications/the-domestic-abuse-report/
[xii] Action for Children, Patchy, piecemeal and precarious
[xiv] Women’s Aid, The Domestic Abuse Report 2020
[xvi] Department for Education (2020) Complexity and challenge: a triennial analysis of SCRs 2014-17.