Written evidence submitted by Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB)
Written evidence submitted by Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB)
Submission to the Education Select Committee inquiry on the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
1.1 Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB) protects and reunites children with their families in 130 countries around the world. We have a unique insight into the effect of COVID-19 on children’s social services worldwide and in the UK.
1.2 Technology has proved invaluable for the continued operation of CFAB services, as it has undoubtedly for others in the charity and public sector. However, the benefits of using technology need to be considered against the potential safeguarding risks when children are the end users or where the outcomes of virtual services impact children and young people.
1.3 We are concerned that reduced capacity and tightened budgets in children’s services will mean that family members overseas are no longer considered as carers for children in the UK care system, even when this may be the most effective long-term caring scenario for a child.
1.4 We are concerned about the relaxation of the statutory duties of local authorities towards vulnerable children and young people and fear that it may leave those that are already the most vulnerable at greater risk of being left behind. Greater support and funding should be provided to local authorities to deliver these necessary safeguarding duties rather than allowing flexibility for them to fall by the wayside.
1.5 In recognition of the charity sector’s contribution to supporting and providing children’s services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) funding route should be reopened to support these projects.
2.1 CFAB supports children on the move between the UK and other countries, and children who are separated from their family in another country. Formed to help with the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Second World War, we have 65 years’ experience in international child protection. In the last five years alone we have helped over 10,000 children moving to and from the UK, and the annual demand for our services has nearly doubled in that time.
2.2 The complexities of migration and international separation can make many of these children particularly hard to support and particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We ensure that children in these circumstances enjoy the same care, protection and right to a family life as we would want for any child.
3.1 CFAB is the only UK charity with an inter-country social work team. Our qualified social workers and specially trained case workers:
4.1 As a result of lockdown measures associated with COVID-19, the world has moved online in order to deliver services. CFAB is no exception. Similarly, many children’s services and social workers have been tasked with continuing their work remotely. Whilst we acknowledge the vast benefits of the continuation of such crucial services, this should be accompanied by increased vigilance to ensure the ongoing and even bolstered safeguarding of children. CFAB has issued emergency interim guidance aimed at social workers, and indeed others in the sector who may be considering providing services virtually, to address the ethical and practical questions about how to safely arrange assessments of family members in other countries, which may be in varying stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidance sets out some principles to govern practice in these unprecedented times, specifically in relation to the assessment of parents or kinship carers (also known as friends and family carers) abroad where face to face visits cannot be conducted.
4.2 Our guidance recognises that the use of video technology can greatly expedite the work of social workers, particularly when used as a viability assessment to determine whether a potential carer should be ruled out or more thoroughly assessed at a later date. Phone or video-based interview sessions are usually sufficient for gathering factual and basic information such as regarding accommodation, living arrangements, health history, income, employment status, and local facilities, to name a few. This information can be useful to rule a potential carer out, but should not be used as a replacement for a final, in-person assessment which can verify the information that was provided during a remote interview.
4.3 The limitations and risks associated with the use of virtual technology to perform an assessment of a potential carer, or to determine permanency of a child, have significant read across to all other uses of virtual technology where a child is the end user, or where decisions made based on the outcomes of a virtual meeting may impact on a child or young person. Limitations and risks that CFAB have identified with specific reference to conducting virtual assessments include:
4.4 CFAB advises that a face-to-face visit should always be conducted before a final decision is made to place a child with a carer, even when this creates delays to the placement.
4.5 Similar caution should be applied when considering the use of technology for the delivery of services across all settings.
5.1 The social care system is incredibly overstretched, and understandably, capacity is limited even further during these unprecedented circumstances. At CFAB, we believe that international kinship placements for children currently in care in England can be key to easing the pressure on our already stretched social care system whilst also enabling the Government to achieve its manifesto aims of prioritising “stable, loving placements” for children currently in care. We also believe that all children have the right to live safely with family, no matter where they are – a right which is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Department for Education’s own statistics demonstrate that that there are now 78,150 children in care in England - a rise of 28% in a decade – over 18,000 of which we estimate have family members abroad who could potentially care for them. This means that there are 18,000 children which have the potential to be relieved from the care system in the UK and placed into a loving, family care arrangement where they can thrive.
5.2 Last year, CFAB conducted research to ascertain how many local authorities explored family members abroad as possible carers for Looked After Children between 2015 and 2017. Shockingly, we found that half of local authorities who provided answers did not explore any family members abroad in this timeframe, and of those that did, none reported placing more than an average of 3 Looked After Children abroad per year. These findings are particularly concerning in light of the fact that 1 in 3 children in England and Wales have at least one parent born outside the UK and at a time when a huge increase in demand, combined with historical funding cuts, is putting immense pressure on local authorities who support vulnerable children and young people who need help.
5.3 Staffing limitations and workload increases due to COVID-19 will mean that local authorities will likely have even less capacity to consider overseas family members as potential suitable carers for a child. Whilst we understand that the ability to physically place a child overseas is restricted during this time, the ability to begin the process of considering potential carers is still possible, as is the ability to conduct virtual viability assessments, or, in countries where social workers are unrestricted by lockdown measures, perform full face-to-face assessments. CFAB’s expert team of intercountry social workers continue to arrange assessments of potential carers overseas even during this time, in countries where this is possible.
5.4 Unicef has warned that children are at heightened risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence during the lockdown and many children are likely to face an increasing threat to their safety and wellbeing as a result of lockdown measures. At CFAB, in line with lockdown easements and more children returning to school, we also expect to receive an increase in cases involving children who have witnessed domestic violence and those whose parents have mental health issues.
5.5 Rather than rolling back their statutory duties, local authorities should be provided with the tools and training to enable them to better identify risks and mitigate against potential safeguarding concerns that may be heightened during this time. In an increasingly digital world where the risks posed to children exist in a multitude of environments – online, in the home, at school – this is something that should be addressed, irrespective of COVID-19. Given that as a result of COVID-19, children’s activities have moved predominantly indoors and online, the need to be vigilant to spotting safeguarding concerns is even more important. When our own studies show that local authorities are not currently recording crucial information, such as the outcomes of a child in their care who has been placed with a family overseas, and in light of recent studies such as that from IKWRO which shows that over half of children’s service departments in England and Wales are not recording how many minors in their jurisdiction are at risk of child marriage , this is not the time to be relaxing the responsibilities of councils that are in place to ensure the safety of children.
6.1 It is welcome news that the Government has recognised the wide disparities and inequalities that exist with regards to children’s ability to access broadband and mobile devices, by rolling out the provision of laptops, tablets and 4G routers to disadvantaged children, in light of the crucial role that these are playing in children’s ability to continue to access quality schooling remotely during COVID-19.
6.2 The eligibility of this support rightly prioritises children who receive support from a social worker, care leavers and those children in critical stages of their education. Unfortunately, however, the beneficiaries of our post-placement support programme – children and young people who have come, often from refugee camps in Greece and France, to live with relatives in the UK – fall through the gaps of this support. These children have complex needs which places enormous pressure on the families with whom they come to live; families who are often already struggling themselves, who receive little or no statutory support and who therefore experience a high rate of family breakdown. English is not their first language and they are already behind when it comes to the UK school system. Now, in lockdown, their access to adequate schooling is even more restricted and the responsibility of the caregiver (sometimes a sibling of the child/young person with no experience of looking after someone) is even more stretched. These children are not care leavers, nor do they tend to receive support from a local authority social worker. As such, they are ineligible for this technological support offering. These children should be included in the prioritisation for access to 4G routers and laptops/tablets to ensure that they are not left even further behind and ultimately even more reliant on statutory support in the future.
6.3 CFAB has been working hard in collaboration with other charities to try and provide our young beneficiaries with the technology that they need so that they can continue their schooling in their home environment. However, the most significant issue is ensuring that they have internet, as this requires ongoing support as opposed to a one off supply of a laptop or other mobile device. This is alongside additional support that we are providing due to the increased financial difficulties that our beneficiaries are facing, including translations of information from the government on preventing the spread of the virus and what to do if they get ill, making referrals to food banks, and helping with online benefit applications.
7.1 Without knowing the nature of a future national emergency it is hard to recommend a solid action plan to ensure the resilience of the sector. For example, our recommendations for how to safeguard against system failure in anticipation of a state of emergency in relation to significant conflict might be different to what we might recommend for a second peak of COVID-19 or indeed a future global pandemic. However, we can, and have, recommended some approaches to ensure the wider resilience of the sector more generally and this should be executed regardless of any anticipation of a future emergency.
7.2 Training – As noted in point 5.5, we recommend that all local authorities with a children’s services department should be trained in the nuances of international social work and placing children with a family member overseas. The aim is to translate this into increased consideration of overseas family members as long term carers for UK looked after children. Ultimately, this should ease overall pressure on the care system and free up capacity which will be of great benefit in the face of a future emergency. CFAB has provided such training to some local authorities and can continue to do so.
7.3 Funding - Local authorities need to be sufficiently funded so that they can respond to and actively engage in more complex cases, including those involving children with family overseas. Given the reliance on the charity sector – particularly in relation to children’s services - that has been demonstrated during the pandemic, there is need for appropriate and ongoing statutory funding. We were greatly appreciative of the support we received from the Department for Education via the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) funding route, which funded CFAB’s free advice line for 8 years. This funding route has since closed and now CFAB receives no statutory funding. CFAB provided greater detail into the impact of COVID-19 on the charity sector in our submission of evidence to the DCMS select committee inquiry of the same name. Given that the report that followed the call for evidence outlined the importance of the services that charities provide: “Losing their services in either the short term or after the country emerges from this crisis will cause untold damage to individuals and communities,” the case for additional statutory support for the sector is incredibly strong – particularly with reference to smaller charities that often fall short of such funding. This will enable children’s services that take place outside of the statutory sphere to continue as they have done – albeit with great financial difficulty – throughout this pandemic.
7.4 Fostering – The Government may wish to consider supporting a campaign to further increase the capacity of foster service providers and to ascertain the availability of foster carers who are prepared to take in vulnerable children despite of the risks of illness/future pandemics. This will ensure greater capacity in the fostering network during any future emergency.
7.5 Communication – During the pandemic, messaging has largely been communicated and targeted to adults, with the expectation that this will then be disseminated to children. Whilst not necessarily directly ensuring the resilience of the sector, we recommend delivering improved and continuous lessons of hygiene, illness prevention and emergency response through ‘child-to-child’ and ‘child-to-adult (parent)’ practical learning at school settings to send out coherent messages. For example, learning how infections can spread, how to wash hands properly, social-distancing, wearing masks, and practicing drilling exercises on how to evacuate safely would be helpful to allow children to feel prepared for a range of scenarios and in turn help to prepare their parents. This should be accompanied with a system of including children in consultation or preparation processes - listening to their worries, views, and their suggestions as to what may help them personally in a future crisis.
7.6 Technology – An expedited roll out of broadband to all households is vital to ensuring that each child has the tools needed to be able to learn from home if it is a requirement to do so in the future. Those from a lower socio-economic background, children with a social worker, children in care and care leavers should be prioritised for this roll out. In addition, consideration should be given with regards to the availability of laptops/tablets for children to complete schoolwork on. This is especially important when considering the proportion of adults now homeworking that may not have a device they are able to share. The Government should work with local authorities and schools to ensure that particularly vulnerable children have access to a laptop or other suitable device so that their learning is not jeopardised further by a future emergency. Children, parents and carers should also be provided with appropriate schooling and guidance as to how to safely conduct themselves online and how to spot risky social media contact. This will help to prevent vulnerable children being subject to online exploitation. This is particularly important for young people who are experiencing difficulties at home who may be allured by gangs or perpetrators of abuse who are offering convenient escape/alternatives.
 https://assets-global.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_Conservative%202019%20Manifesto.pdf Page 14