Coronavirus hasn't stopped child abuse – it's just made it invisible

Right now, across the UK, thousands of children are being abused in their own homes.

In any other circumstance, these youngsters – who are being raped, beaten and neglected by their own parents or relatives – would be referred to social care.

However, the coronavirus lockdown has meant children have been left voiceless and invisible with the many schools, youth services – statutory or voluntary, children’s and health centres no longer open for referrals of children to authorities.

On average 12,608 young people are referred to social care a week in England. If 25 percent of these are not being referred, that means 3,152 children are not being brought to the attention of social care per week.

However, in some areas, the number of cases being reported have dropped by as much as 75 per cent – that’s nearly 10,000 children a month being failed.

Each of them could be terrified every time their bedroom door opens. Maybe they have a black eye but no teacher to query it – or haven’t a clue that any sort of help even exists for them.

The pandemic has brought to our door a once-in-a-generation crisis in childcare and we need action from the government immediately to help these children.

I know just how important getting this help is. I went into care when I was 10 and it was a rescue for me. Living in care was a much nicer experience for me than the family home, where I would get regularly abused by a parent. In the boarding schools, children’s homes and foster families that I stayed in and with, I finally felt safe and free of fear.

For any child who dreads going back home because they get raped by their dad or beaten by their mother, now there is no way of exiting the situation

Official government statistics this week revealed that only five per cent of vulnerable children entitled to go to school during the lockdown are actually attending. These children deserve more than just a phone call from a teacher checking if they are OK. 

While figures have been published about the worrying rise of domestic abuse during lockdown – Refuge revealed a 49 per cent rise in calls to their helplines – and the issue spoken about at length, child abuse hasn’t received the same level of attention.

Covid-19 has not suddenly turned parents into abusers, they have always been doing it. However, for any child who dreads going back home because they get raped by their dad or beaten by their mother, now there is no way of exiting the situation.

It’s vital we let these children know what is happening to them is not OK. We need adverts in primetime Children’s TV slots telling them where to seek help if they’re being abused.

Social workers need to be looking back at all the reports and referrals over the last year, to investigate and revisit cases that previously might not have met the threshold for the child to be taken into care, but could now.

We need neighbours to get in touch with the authorities if they see or hear a youngster being abused next door or across the street. It takes a community to raise a child, and now more than ever we need to make sure children are protected. 

When lockdown is over and the schools begin to resume, there will be a massive increase in referrals but many councils simply won’t have the resources to deal with a surge in new cases in a short space of time. And, for lots of children, it will be too late – the damage will already be done.

I have worked in the children’s care sector for my entire adult life – from working on frontline youth services to the director of children’s services and being the CEO of an entire council.

My current role is supporting children’s services throughout the country. So I know that, right now, there is a new case of child abuse which is not being addressed. As a society, we cannot let this carry on.

Alison is Practice Authority Director for the Anster Group, which provides support for local authority children’s services departments across the country.

If you are a child who is worried about your lockdown situation, phone Childline on 0800 1111.

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