With the closure of schools and childcare settings to all but the children of essential workers, or children deemed vulnerable, how can we as a sector continue to safeguard children?
The current lockdown means that children who are normally seen regularly in your setting are now behind closed doors. Children are also not so visible to other people and services. GP and Health visitor appointments take place via phone, toddler groups and children’s centres are closed, and children are seeing grandparents, neighbours and family friends less.
On top of this, families are under increasing stress. Many are facing financial difficulties and worries. Some will be juggling caring for their children at home while trying to work and some even to home school. Practical support provided to parents by friends and family members has ceased. Groups or sessions to support parents’ mental health or addictive behaviours may only be running online, if at all. The usual release mechanisms of taking the kids to the park to burn off some steam are not available, while for parents a night out with friends or a swim or gym session is a distant memory. Parents may be unwell themselves or worried about relatives who are sick. Isolation for single parents could be affecting mental health, while being cooped up with an abusive or controlling partner could be increasing the risk of domestic abuse.
I could keep going with this list, but you get the idea: there are an awful lot of difficulties facing families at the moment, which puts children at greater risk of abuse or neglect. Three weeks into the lock down and no sign of an end in sight, pressures could well be building in homes.
So, what as a sector can we be doing?
It’s a really challenging time, with many settings closed and staff furloughed, meaning options are limited. With children so ‘closed away’ their ability to ask for help is greatly reduced, so we need to prioritise those at the greatest risk:
For those children where there is already social care involvement it is vitally important that we are doing everything we can to keep those children visible. If your setting is closed, or you’re open but the child isn’t attending, make sure the child’s social worker is aware; don’t assume they know. Where possible try and communicate with those families at least weekly to check how they are doing.
The same goes for families with a child who has an education, health and care plan. Looking after a child with complex needs in the current circumstances may well be putting significant additional strain on families. Try to keep in contact with them and, where possible, liaise with other professionals who usually support the family.
We also know families we are concerned about who haven’t met the threshold for social care involvement. And likewise, we know children who display some very challenging development or behaviours, who do not yet have Education, Health and Childcare plans. Where possible, I would also be encouraging settings to be keep in touch with these families.
Finally, any family could now be struggling so it is important to keep links with everyone if at all possible.
Keeping in contact
Even if we can’t see our families face to face, we can stay in touch through technology.
Pick up the phone and call those families you are most worried about. Even better, if at all possible, make a video call to maintain face to face communication. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger both have these facility (simply download from either the APP Store (apple phones) or Play Store (android phones). You can also ask parents whether there are apps they use to talk to their friends which you could download. However, be alert to the usual security concerns. Make sure staff are not using personal accounts or personal phones to make calls, set up a Facebook profile for your setting, and use the setting’s mobile phone to make video calls.
On a video call you can see the parent and the children and also how the family home is looking. Don’t be afraid to tactfully ask to see the child – you can say how you are missing their sunny smile, are curious to see how their walking or talking is coming on (or whatever was special/relevant to the child). If each time you call the child is not available this might raise alarm bells.
Ask after both the adults and the children in the home to check both are getting the care and support they need. Use specific and open-ended questions, and probe gently if you are only getting generic answers. For example, you could say, "Tell me about your day", or "What good things have happened this week?", or "What's life at home like?". You can ask, “How are you and (child’s name) filling your time?” or “What have you done this morning?” or “How are mealtimes/bed times going?” or “How are you juggling having all 3 children at home?”.
If children are old enough you could ask them to tell you about their days, the fun things they have done, and what is boring for them. Younger children can wave or join in with a song etc. Bear in mind that it might take a couple of calls for children to get used to interacting with you on a call.
Ask if there are any support, guidance, questions you can help them with over the phone. For some parents, just having a chance to talk to another adult may be a massive relief.
Ask if home is a safe space. We know that calls to domestic violence charities are significantly up from pre-lockdown days. Don’t shy away from asking the question, sometimes letting a person know it’s ok to say “No” can be all they need to reach out for help.
Look at offering a universal group such as a singing or story time once or twice a week. You could invite all families to join in. You could use something like ZOOM, which can be accessed free of charge. (Top tip: have families mute their microphones otherwise it can get a bit crazy!). This will enable you to see all families and you can make a note of any not taking part and give them a call later if you have time.
Try not to put too much pressure on families to ‘educate’ their children (there is a reason we have trained teachers and Early Years practitioners) but do let parents know about support and guidance that is available, especially in their local area, as well as national organisations such as the NSPCC, Mental Health UK and Woman’s Aid that have created resources around covid-19. Let them know you are still here to talk to (if you are).
Finally, it goes without saying, if you have any concerns about a child make sure you advise your local authority child protection team or call 999 if the child is in immediate danger. And remember to keep written records in the normal way.