Written evidence submitted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (COR0109)
- The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the risks of abuse and neglect for many children and young people. With schools closed for most children and the way safeguarding works transformed overnight, children are increasingly hidden away behind closed doors and are at risk of becoming invisible to some services.
- For too many children, home is not always a safe place. Difficult situations are likely to be intensified by the pressure of spending so much time at home, with the risks of abuse and neglect, problematic parental behaviour (including alcohol and drug use) and domestic abuse intensifying during a time of heightened stress. Some children are already under pressure as they may be living in overcrowded accommodation with no private, safe space to retreat or living in families where low incomes, uncertain work and health worries during the coronavirus crisis are adding additional stress to already overburdened families.
- As well as risks of abuse intensifying at home, children have lost important sources of support and feel they have less opportunities to reach out for help. Schools, extra-curricular clubs, sports, and youth clubs all provide important support for young people. Without the ability to interact freely with trusted adults from these settings outside home, some children may slip out of sight – including because they don’t have access to broadband or a laptop or other devices that enable them to stay in touch. For others, spending more time online, both accessing education provided by schools and socialising, brings potential exposure to online abuse and harmful content.
- Against this backdrop we welcome the Committee’s inquiry and the opportunity to contribute evidence on domestic abuse and risks of harm to children within the home during the crisis and, in particular, the measures needed to reduce harm and support victims.
- The NSPCC is the leading children’s charity fighting to prevent child abuse in the UK and Channel Islands. We help children who have been abused to rebuild their lives, protect those at risk, and find the best ways of preventing abuse from ever happening. To achieve our vision, we:
- create, deliver and evaluate services for children which are innovative, distinctive, and demonstrate how to enhance child protection;
- provide advice and support to ensure that every child is listened to;
- campaign for changes to legislation, policy, and practice to ensure the best protection for children; and
- inform and educate the public to change attitudes and behaviours.
- During the coronavirus crisis, the NSPCC is still here for children. In a month, we have transformed the way we operate. Our Helpline and Childline have moved to work remotely so we are here for adults and children day in day out, and at times are proving to be a lifeline. In addition, we are adapting our work in the community through our front-line practitioners in children’s service centres across the country so - for example - we can be there for children online where we cannot see them face to face. We are sharing the data from our helplines and our knowledge of what is happening at a local level with Government to help shape and improve their responses to the emerging child protection challenges. We have focussed our collective energy on adapting the NSPCC’s work as we know children need us more than ever.
Prevalence of these issues since the Government issued ‘stay at home’ guidance
- The numbers of calls to Childline from young people struggling with the coronavirus crisis has increased. From 21 January to 18 March, Childline had carried out 545 counselling sessions about coronavirus concerns with children struggling with anxiety, worries about isolation, abuse and neglect. In the first two weeks of school closures and lockdown measures being into force (26 March to 8 April), the number of counselling sessions about coronavirus related issues rocketed to 2,274.
- During the same period, we have also seen an increase in adults raising coronavirus related child welfare concerns via our Helpline. This has included concerns about family relationships, the pressure of being confined exacerbating tension, parental behaviour (including alcohol or drug use), arguments and domestic abuse. When a child welfare contact is received we provide advice and can also make a referral to external agencies such as police or children’s services. In the first two full weeks since schools closed, concerns about parent or adult health and behaviour accounted for a third (33%) of all referral contacts where coronavirus was mentioned, followed by neglect and emotional abuse which represented 21% and 12% of all referral contacts respectively.
- Even before the coronavirus crisis hit, our Helpline had seen a rise of 25% in a single year in the number of referrals it makes to authorities about children experiencing domestic abuse. This is unsurprising given Government statistics from 2018/19 showing domestic abuse was identified as an issue in 252,580 children in need assessments (over half of all assessments). In the first two, full weeks since the lockdown started on 23 March (26 March to 8 April), the number of contacts we received from adults with concerns about parental domestic abuse rose by 9%.
- Many of the children and families we support through our children’s service centres are living in stressful situations where they are isolating or cut off from social networks and there is a history of mental health difficulties, substance misuse or domestic abuse within the household. We have changed the way we operate from a model that focuses on face to face work in our network of service centres, to a virtual model with all our staff moving to home working, contacting children and families through technology, much of which we have not used previously in the delivery of our services. As well as supporting children and families during this period, we have been collating observations and case studies from our frontline practitioners and service centres across the UK. Themes emerging include:
- Isolation: practitioners have had many conversations with children we support who are telling us about their feelings of isolation and being trapped at home. This is impacting their wellbeing as they feel cut off from friends and from other significant people in their lives, as well as many of the professionals who help support them to keep safe and well.
- Poverty: Many families we are supporting are also significantly impacted by poverty, with some families now relying solely on food parcels and support from local food banks and schools to get through the week. Some of these families may not be able to afford phones or wifi of any kind making it very challenging to provide virtual support and for children to access online teaching and schoolwork. They cannot afford toys or activities to keep their children stimulated and engaged and often struggle to access support.
- Safeguarding: colleagues in local authorities we work with have seen thresholds for cases rising, this means they now have to prioritise resourcing of their social work staff to the cases that are deemed the most urgent and critical. This means that many families we work with are no longer receiving contact or support from their social workers or other agencies unless they are in crisis.
- With school closures and restrictions on public life, children are spending more time online, for accessing education provided by schools and for leisure and socialising. This carries with it increased risks of exposure to online child abuse and harmful content. We are concerned about a three-fold ‘perfect storm’ which could lead to a spike in online child abuse because:
- Platforms have reduced moderation capabilities: many large tech companies have reduced human moderation, because they have suspended the use of third-party moderators and are likely to have significant numbers of staff self-isolating. Platforms have signalled greater reliance of artificial intelligence, which are normally used in a triage function but which usually would refer complex online harms for human review e.g. grooming. Even if platforms prioritise child abuse risks, reduced capacity seems inevitable.
- Increased demand with children at home: Research finds that online abuse tends to peak when children are at home for longer periods e.g. the school holidays. While tech is a lifeline for many children and parents, this is leading to soaring demand for services (some gaming sites have reported traffic has increased by up to 300%). Increased demand when moderation capacity is reduced is a worrying mix. Inevitably, as we are seeing through the concerns raised in Childline counselling sessions, many children will feel more anxious, lonely and upset. It is likely that many of these children will choose to express their feelings through social media, and this is not without risks. NSPCC research shows that children who display traits of loneliness, use social media frequently and are extroverted, are twice as likely to send, receive or be asked to send sexual content to an adult (9% compared to 4%). 
- Offender risks: Europol has already issued two threat assessments warning that many abusers will see the current crisis as an opportunity. The National Crime Agency is concerned too. There are early signs that there is increased demand for Child Sexual Abuse Imagery (with offenders being at home); and that offenders are looking to take advantage of the situation to escalate online grooming on social networks, gaming platforms and livestreaming sites.
- We are also concerned of the effect that potential increased exposure to content that is harmful but not illegal, such as that relating to suicide or self-harm, may have on children who are already feeling vulnerable.
Effectiveness of Government advice, co-ordination and support and further measures needed to reduce or avert domestic abuse and child abuse
Abuse and neglect
- We welcomed the Department of Education’s (DfE) commitment to making child protection a priority during the coronavirus crisis, including their plans to enable “vulnerable children” (those with a social worker or deemed to be a child in need) to attend school. It is concerning that 95% of vulnerable children are not going into schools to benefit from the stability and support they provide. It is vital to know both the number of children not attending school and the reasons why. As schools and children’s services contact children and families to check they are safe and well, and to follow up on any child protection concerns, DfE needs to work with them to gather comprehensive information on why vulnerable children are not attending school. This is crucial for planning the most effective support and action for individual children and for analysing the wider, underlying issues explaining why so few vulnerable children are going into school. With this understanding, DfE must then take steps at a national level to address barriers and enable those vulnerable children who may be at risk to attend school.
- For the children who are not attending school it is crucial that a degree of safeguarding oversight is maintained in the community. Multi-agency safeguarding hubs - comprising local authorities, NHS and police working closely with schools and voluntary sector partners - are the front-line for child protection, understanding the risks to children, monitoring and dealing with referrals and keeping children safe. The Government must provide support and resources to these hubs. These partners have been rapidly restructuring support and adapting practice to make the most effective use of remote technology where possible so children continue. Where face to face visits are essential, social workers need to have the personal protective equipment to do this safely where there are any concerns regarding infection or transmission.
- We have been concerned by reports of a significant drop in the number of child protection referrals being received by children’s social care following the stay at home guidance was issued. In 2018/19, 650,900 new referrals or request for services to be provided by children’s social care were made about a child who was not already a child in need. 29% of these referrals came from police, 20% from schools or education services and 15% from health services. We urge the DfE to work with local safeguarding hubs to track, in real-time, the number and sources of referrals to children’s services they are receiving and the number and timescales for assessments and decision making to protect children. As well as national monitoring of the number of referrals to children’s services and the response, we want the Government to collate other data relevant to child protection including, for example, from police about the number of recorded offences where a child was involved and from health services about the numbers of children presenting at hospital with non-accidental injuries. We have welcomed the action taken by DfE to support and promote our Helpline so everyone knows they can reach out for advice on child welfare concerns.
- We are in regular contact with different government departments including DfE, Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and Department of Health and Social Care and all are working to address the unfolding situation, consult stakeholders and issue guidance. However, there is a risk of a vacuum in national co-ordination around the different, multiple risks of abuse in the home as each department focusses on their individual remits. We want to see senior political leadership across government on the issues affecting children at risk with a Minister-led working group that is able to ensure work by different departments is joined up and action taken is followed through and effective.
- This work also needs to be joined up with what is happening at a local level. As well as supporting and resourcing these partners, the Government must ensure meaningful involvement of local safeguarding hubs in a coordinated manner. The DfE has established regional React teams to work with local authorities and support their capacity, and we are interested in the efficacy of this approach. However, the role of the police and NHS in keeping children safe is vital, and co-ordinated local action requires a joint and consistent message from central government, including:
- the development of clear guidance about identifying and responding to abuse;
- gathering information and data about safeguarding referrals in different areas so these can be analysed at a national level for any trends or emerging threats;
- making sure that examples of good practice at a local level are picked up and widely shared at national level;
- by drawing on the information from local safeguarding partners, Government can not only keep abreast of developments but adapt and provide additional support where it is most needed and effective.
- The additional funding and awareness raising campaign announced for domestic abuse helplines and online services is a welcome step so victims know they can reach out for advice and support. However, social services and specialist charities also need to be resourced so they can act on referrals from helplines effectively and support families experiencing domestic abuse.
- We also welcome the Home Secretary’s acknowledgement that domestic abuse is “a largely hidden crime”. We would go further and say some of those who experience domestic abuse are hidden too. Children are deeply affected by domestic abuse. There is compelling evidence from serious case reviews and research showing domestic abuse is one of the most common factors in situations where children have experienced (or are at risk of) serious harm. As many as one in five children and young people experience domestic abuse during their childhood and it can have a devastating impact on them, resulting in emotional, social, psychological and behavioural difficulties with short and long-term implications. Some children even endure the unimaginable loss of a parent through domestic homicide.
- Government needs to recognise children that experience abuse (not just “witness” it) and their approach to tackling domestic abuse needs to reflect that so children are not just seen as “add ons” to plans and programmes designed for adult victims. We want the Home Office to ensure:
- the needs of children and young people are included in the government response to domestic abuse during the coronavirus crisis. We are pleased to note that references to children have now been included in guidance about addressing domestic abuse during the coronavirus crisis. This should be regularly revisited and updated to include specific examples of good practice for supporting children during this time. In addition, we welcome the government’s awareness raising campaign but would urge the Home Office to develop and share child-friendly awareness raising materials so young people also know where and who to reach out to if they are trapped at home with domestic abuse
- first responders like the police, paramedics and others are clear on the expectations on them to be aware of children present in the home and ensure concerns are passed on to children’s services. This has been a concern of previous Inspectorate reports. Now more than ever, the information first responders can provide is crucial to getting an accurate picture of what life might be like for children who are experiencing domestic abuse behind closed doors. We would the Home Office to work with the College of Policing, National Police Chiefs Council and forces to develop and disseminate short, refreshed training and awareness raising material on domestic abuse that reminds of the signs to look out for and how to share information with children’s services.
- they understand what provision is currently available to children and young people experiencing domestic abuse and where there are gaps which need to be filled. Research from colleagues at Action for Children showed that there was significant variability in the level of provision for children and young people impacted by domestic abuse both between and within local authorities in England and Wales. Before the coronavirus crisis, insufficient funding had been allocated to provide a sustainable future for vital projects working with children and no clear funding stream for children and young people experiencing domestic abuse - even within refuges, where there are more children resident than women. This situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis meaning even fewer children will currently be able to access specialist support and services. For example, 18% of respondents to SafeLives’ recent survey of frontline domestic abuse services said they had cancelled children’s services because of the coronavirus crisis.
- The lack of focus on the needs of children experiencing domestic abuse during the coronavirus crisis mirrors the approach the department has taken to the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. As the Committee is aware, one of the major criticisms of the Bill is that it does not reflect children’s experiences of this traumatic form of abuse. The Home Office has insisted that no changes to the Bill are needed to ensure that children affected by domestic abuse are protected - despite concerns being raised by two parliamentary Select Committees, the Victims’ Commissioner, Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Children’s Commissioner for England and the coalition of children’s and women’s charities which the NSPCC is part of (co-chaired by Action for Children and Women’s Aid). With the coronavirus crisis underlining the impact domestic abuse can have on children, it is now more important than ever that the Home Office amends the Domestic Abuse Bill to address the needs of children and young people.
Child abuse online
- The early Home Office response to child abuse online has been strong with Ministers and officials driving co-ordinated action across the Five Eyes countries and acting as a crucial intermediary between international governments, industry and NGOs/ third party bodies.
- We need to see further government and Home Office action in the following areas:
- Instructing tech firms to voluntarily disclose data on ongoing child abuse referrals being made to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). By sharing this information on a regular and timely basis, there will be real-time assessment of the impact of the crisis, and the ability to identify any moderation issues which need attention;
- Requesting detailed assurances about what steps tech firms are taking to ensure business continuity, including that platforms are prioritising child abuse moderation (and detail on how this is happening);
- Encouraging platforms to develop cross-industry mechanisms to share intelligence on the emerging nature and volume of online threats. Abuse risks are rarely siloed on a discrete site, and while industry has traditionally been very poor at exchanging info on threat vectors and offender behaviour, it is vital this coordination now takes place;
- Encouraging tech platforms to share data and trends with law enforcement and child protection bodies, so that they can work together to understand and be ahead of risks and provide appropriate, risk-aligned advice;
- Developing an effective online safety campaign by pressing platforms to feature prominent, high quality and age-appropriate safety messaging on their sites by, for example, the use of pop-ups, sending safety messages into direct messages and inboxes.
- The crisis is underlining the need for Government to prioritise their Queen’s Speech commitment to bring forward an Online Harms Bill at pace, and get statutory regulation up and running.
- The current crisis is exposing existing shortcomings in platform design and moderation. If platforms had better safety features in place, and if they had invested earlier in better artificial intelligence to detect and disrupt abuse, sites would undoubtedly be better placed to withstand the current risks.
- Recent developments underline the importance of a Duty of Care approach that needs to be set out in the Online Harms Bill – i.e. that companies must be required to identify reasonably foreseeable risks and act to mitigate them at the outset. For example, the CEO of Zoom recently said he had ‘never thought about this seriously’ when talking about online harassment. This is despite the site being readily exploitable by child abusers, featuring in 57 NCMEC reports last year, and being described as the ‘Netflix of child pornography’ by a US Federal prosecutor because of how easy it was to livestream child abuse on the site. The government must take action to change this in the UK through the Online Harms Bill. Technology is, and will continue to be, an essential utility for all of us, including children, and it must be a priority to ensure it is safe for children to use.
- We would strongly welcome ongoing scrutiny from the HASC and others on the effectiveness of the response to online harms, including the ongoing Government and industry action, and any impacts on the ability of law enforcement to maintain investigations during this time. As the NSPCC, and law enforcement agencies including the NCA and the NPCC have warned, there is a risk of a sharp rise in tech-facilitated abuse during the coronavirus crisis. Ongoing scrutiny will be essential to ensuring this attracts the visibility and attention it requires.
- Finally, as well as working to ensure victims are being identified and supported during the lockdown, Government needs to start planning for the future when children start to return to school and have more contact with teachers, health workers and other adults. The experience of other countries suggests that, once the stay at home measures are eased, there is potential for a significant increase in police reports, referrals, demand for support services and cases going to court. By modelling and anticipating what strains this may place on the child protection system, Government can plan how will this be mitigated through, for example, ramping up capacity in children’s social care and local safeguarding partners and resourcing specialist services. It is vital this work starts now so we avoid the coronavirus crisis having a devastating, secondary impact and we make sure children and young people can access the timely, effective support they may need to recover and rebuild their lives.
 During 2018/19 the NSPCC Helpline dealt with 9,583 Child Welfare Contacts about Parental Domestic Abuse. We made 6,642 referrals, 57% of which were to children’s services. This equals 3,786 referrals, the equivalent of ten a day. In 2017/18 the NSPCC made 5,322 referrals, meaning there was a 24.8% rise year on year.
 Typically we deliver around 18,000 one to one sessions and over 2,500 group sessions annually
 We are providing every child and family that we support with Safe and Well checks, on top of their usual support through the services we deliver. This is at least a weekly check in call (in some cases daily), which provides consistency but also provides a safe space for children and parents to talk and to express how they are feeling as well as a chance to ask for advice and support.
 In some areas we have been supporting Local Authority partners and other organisations through a rota to take referrals for practical support such as food and medication deliveries. We have been physically supporting local organisations to distribute essential food, medication and activity packs to the most vulnerable and isolated families. Some families we support struggle with reading and writing and accessing things such as ordering food on line for delivery, accessing support through Citizens Advice and supporting people to access benefits they are entitled to.
 Information on the most recent assessment can be found here: https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/catching-virus
 Comments made by Pennsylvania federal prosecutor Austin Berry in a high profile case where a 6 year old was sexually abused in a livestream on Zoom https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/09/us/internet-child-sex-abuse.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share