As The Guardian reported last week, child protection referrals have plummeted by more than 50% in some areas of England. The pandemic presents a perfect storm of safeguarding risks; at a time when more support is needed for vulnerable children, those most at risk aren’t being identified. Children are not in contact with schools and health professionals who would usually raise safeguarding concerns, and council staff absence and isolation procedures make it more difficult for councils to offer support.
In addition to the many direct impacts Covid-19 has already had on the health and social care systems, it has also presented new risks for vulnerable children and families living in our communities:
- Children have lost their protective network – they’re not seeing friends, teachers, football team coaches or grandparents;
- Parents, especially those who are vulnerable, will be missing their support mechanisms such as family, friends, babysitters, parenting clubs, and respite (from children being at school, brownies, gymnastics etc);
- We’re living in a time of unprecedented stress – housing difficulties, illness, financial stress are all triggers that contribute to mental health, substance misuse and domestic abuse problems in the home.
We have been working with one of our local authority clients to help them proactively identify vulnerable children and young people in need of additional support, so they can prioritise their efforts and make best use of the skills and capacity available. We are helping the council to assemble and match a series of datasets around markers of potential vulnerability, and using that data to profile and stratify potential vulnerability.
Where children and families are open to social care, this approach will strengthen and broaden the existing risk stratification method used for the daily prioritisation of visits and interventions.
Where children and families are not open to social care, but are open to other ‘critical’ services, the intelligence will be shared with that service, if it is currently in operation. The case-holding professional in that service will then use the information and other tools (checklists, conversation prompts, support directories, etc) to broaden the scope of their conversation with those children and families and provide targeted signposting, advice and referrals – where needed.
Where children are not open to any ‘critical’ services, a team will actively contact the family and create a strength-based conversation with the family about how they can remain independent and resilient in understanding and meeting their needs.
These strength-based conversations will enable and empower families, and develop community links – connecting those most in need to food banks, parenting advice, health advice and links to support on mental health and substance misuse etc.
During such uncertain times, there has been a shift in the way we usually do things. Our community development work with this council has provided five key learning points which could be applied to other local government and public services:
- Work across interfaces to join up data. Never before has there been such an impetus to work together, so reach out to partners and join data where possible. For example, we’ve linked in vulnerability factors from the benefits system (which gives live data on free school meal eligibility), housing (to identify those in potentially more cramped conditions) and health.
- Follow the 80/20 ‘Pareto Principle’. It’s unlikely that your data will fit together perfectly, or that you’ll be able to include every factor that you would like to. Mobilising quickly with something that’s ‘good enough’ is more important than a perfect approach.
- Pick up the phone or make a video call. Talking things through helps solve data problems at pace and gets you to a workable solution much more quickly than persevering in isolation.
- Things move quickly, so be prepared to adapt. For example, initially one of the biggest risks was eligible children not receiving their free school meals. However, now that most schools have moved to a voucher system, this is less of a concern.
- Have a plan in place for the identified risks and needs. It’s never too soon to start mapping out community resources and interacting with the voluntary sector to find out what is available for families to use.
Developing and acting on this sort of layered community intelligence has long been a system leadership goal for councils, yet few have achieved it to date. This could be one of many positive legacies of the pandemic – as one senior leader of this council often says, “never waste a crisis”.