On the 24 April the government announced that more than £12 million would be spent on projects to tackle the increased risk some children and young people are facing, and that children in care and care leavers would benefit. Then, on 2nd May, the government announced £76 million for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and vulnerable children. This funding is more than welcome and indeed necessary. There is no doubt that the risk of domestic abuse and other harms, and the harmful impact on everyone, particularly children, in the household is increasing as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. Those of us in the field of children protection are not surprised, sadly, about this.
So far, so good seemingly. However, on 24 April the government also introduced new regulations which in the view of many informed observers leave vulnerable children even worse off than they are already. The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus)(Amendment)(Regulations 2020) came into force without notice and without the usual consultation time. They are set to last until September but can remain in place for longer if the government chooses to extend them.
These regulations have brought in a number of significant changes which reduce and remove the measures that up until now had been in place to protect and safeguard children in care. There are many changes, and none provide any greater levels of protection to vulnerable children.
The government has since then issued a further guidance document on 6 May explaining in what circumstances the regulations can be applied. This is not good enough. The law cannot be changed in this way and the regulations should be revoked.
Many have expressed their deep concern that the government has used the circumstances of Covid 19 to bring in these regulations, which have changed the law. By doing so the government has also brought in changes it has tried to implement before but which have been defeated in the past through the democratic process. This is not only a child protection issue, it is a matter of the proper use of legal procedure and due process.
Article 39, who campaign for children’s rights, have instructed lawyers who have sent a letter on 7 May to the DfE threatening legal action if the changes are not withdrawn.
The absence of any detailed explanation and discussion has not assisted anyone in understanding why in fact these changes are needed.
We all know that social workers are frontline workers, are under great pressure and that they are at risk themselves in carrying out visits. Nobody underestimates the challenges that all local authorities face and we should praise and defend frontline social workers. We don’t have access to information from each local authority but we expect that many are receiving more referrals. Children’s services teams were under great pressure before this pandemic, after years of austerity measures and the pandemic will not have improved the situation. We also understand that the personal safety of social workers has to be a high priority for every local authority. However every authority, like everyone else, has to adapt to the current situation and decide what is essential, what is not and what can be done differently.
Even if these regulations were meant to reduce pressure on social workers, what if something goes wrong and a child is injured or worse, and something might have been spotted during a visit that did not take place? The social work team, and each social worker, will find themselves under greater scrutiny and probably worse if that happens. Aside from the personal toll on a social worker, the time taken on inquiries and reviews, is likely to be more than the time “saved” in not doing a visit or a panel meeting.
The further issue is that by removing time limits for things, days, weeks and months drift and there is nothing to remind a social worker that a check is needed.
I suggest that whilst it might be thought these regulations may save time, they are unlikely to do so. Indeed, shifting some visits and panels on to a video platform in fact could save more time by reducing the need for travel.
On an individual level, there will be some social workers who will not agree to these changes. They may decide to carry on with their visits at the required times, and in person. This may put them in conflict with their managers who may question their activity or, worse, tell them they cannot do a visit or a check. This will be even more difficult if something does go wrong and there is scrutiny of decision making and personal responsibility. The social worker will be the one wrestling with their conscience.
We have child protection laws for a reason. The answer is not to remove and erode children’s protections, at a time of even greater need, particularly when many children are not being seen by teachers in school, which has removed yet another safeguard.
A way must be found to think creatively and make sure child protection is not compromised. Workloads and requirements must be analysed carefully to work out what must be done (visits to children for example) and what can be delayed or deferred. I don’t say this lightly but resources need to be examined, and enquiries made about other services who can assist or what staffing may be needed. For a child in care needing to see his or her social worker, with something they need to say, the prospect of a visit being moved and perhaps never happening, is too great a risk to take.
At this time, vulnerable children who are coming into care and who are already in care need greater, not less protection. The outcomes for children in care are already so poor. The country already fears for the welfare of all its children. We cannot allow children in care to be let down even more than they are already.
Samantha Little is partner and head of the children law team at law firm Russell-Cooke