Coronavirus (COVID-19): children, young people and families - evidence and intelligence report

Overview of the latest evidence and intelligence about the impact of COVID-19 and the response on children, young people and families, in particular, those experiencing the greatest challenges.

C. Impact on Families

i) Concerns expressed by parents and carers

Since the beginning of March, Children 1st Parentline[18] has reported a 158% increase of calls about finances and employment. The main concerns raised by families include: loss of income, need for benefit checks, grant application support, utility issues and payment holiday requests. Children 1st has also reported that many of these calls are from families who would not have previously sought their services, including families who are in settled employment where furlough is impacting.

Particular concerns have been raised by parents and carers in relation to education, including:

  • The lack of supported transitions into primary school and high school. Children have experienced loss at the lack of endings as they transition into new life stages.
  • The 'blended learning' model – parents have reported they have struggled because they are not teachers, don't have all the resources they need and don't know how to do it. Many children and young people struggle without the structure and direct support from teachers and home learning expectations have been variable.
  • Fears amongst school leavers about their prospects re further and higher education (what the impact of Covid-19 will be on this), apprenticeships and job opportunities
  • Children and young people are worried about what they have missed; what they have not been able to do; what they have not achieved during lockdown
  • There has been a sense of feeling that schools have prioritised achievement/ attainment over wellbeing during lockdown and families have reflected that they have felt lots of individual responsibility in terms of managing learning and expectations without clear recognition of existing trauma and pre- existing challenges in addition to new challenges posed by the pandemic itself.

Children 1st Parentline have also reported experiencing a high number of calls from separated parents who are asking questions about keeping in touch with their children. Many calls are about the difference in rules between England and Scotland and how this can be managed when both parents do not live in Scotland.

Children 1st Parentline is now providing a service for families who are having virtual Children's Hearings, helping to talk them through the process and ensure their views and voices are heard.

ii) Families on low incomes

A report from Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation[19] sets out new research and modelling[i] looking at the incomes of families on low incomes during the pandemic, the extra costs families face and the impact on their ability to cope financially.

There were 412 responses from families in Scotland which showed that almost half reported a reduction in income since March and that almost nine in ten reported rising household costs. More than half of families on Universal Credit (UC) or Child Tax Credits (CTCs) have been pushed to borrow money since the start of the crisis. Over half have fallen behind on rent or other household bills and 71% have had to cut back on food and other essentials. 65% of those surveyed said the pressures were impacting negatively on their mental health.

In May, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland (CPAG) undertook research[j] about the experiences of school closures for children and families. They found that 40% of low-income families were missing at least one essential resource to support their children's learning. One third of the families who were most worried about money had to buy a laptop, tablet or other device. Families that were most worried about money were also more likely to have bought educational resources for their children and were more likely to say they found it difficult to continue their children's education at home. When children can go back to school, parents' primary concern is children's wellbeing. Children and young people reported that they value contact with teachers and classmates. Secondary school pupils were more likely to report doing 'a lot' of schoolwork at home if they were regularly keeping in touch with teachers.

Families that were eligible for receiving support towards the cost of replacing free school meals valued this support and most advised they preferred to receive support through direct payments to their bank accounts, as this method allowed flexibility, dignity, safety and convenience[20].

Early insights from Children's Neighbourhoods Scotland research[k] (published 8 May) with services supporting families living in high poverty settings during COVID-19 identified very significant concerns including: overcrowding, job losses, access to financial support and food, relationship strains, and additional stresses for families dealing with additional support needs and caring responsibilities. Digital access, both to devices and to the internet, was a reported issue for many families, including those with children and young people expected to access online learning. Some families were reported to prefer to engage with the third sector, rather than formal education.

Families who were managing or 'just coping' at the beginning of the lockdown period were reported to be living in difficult circumstances and seeking support. There was a reported need among families for intensive and regular emotional support from external agencies. This was being provided via the phone and video calls. There was a reported concern that volunteer groups established at the start of the lockdown may not have the capacity or structures to continue in the longer term[21].

Findings from two surveys undertaken by Family Fund Scotland[l] indicate that many parents or carers of disabled children are experiencing decreased income yet higher expenditure, and that one of their key concerns is how to entertain and educate their children at home. Both surveys suggest a large reduction in the availability of both formal and informal support.[22]

iii) Single Parent Families

Since lockdown began, One Parent Families Scotland[23] has reported a 300% increase in calls to their Lone Parent Helpline and on-line chat. In response to COVID-19, the organisation has developed a new website with a live chat function and a coronavirus hub with information and advice. Their new 'COVID-19 Single Parent Family Impact Monitoring System' is also gathering views and concerns from parents.

iv) Families with disabled children and young people

Intelligence from the aforementioned Family Fund surveys, Inclusion Scotland[24] and stakeholders has highlighted a number of key issues for families with disabled children and young people, including:

  • Decreased Income: Many families have experienced decreased income, diminishing savings, yet higher expenditure, (particularly in relation to food and energy costs). The second wave of the Family Fund Survey undertaken in May 2020 found that nearly half of the 200 families who responded in Scotland had lost income as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and 85% were experiencing increased household costs. Priority items families reported they needed included: outdoor play and leisure equipment, tablets, computers and laptops, and sensory toys / equipment.
  • Decreased Support: In many cases, in addition to losing the protective and supportive environment of the early years or school setting, some families reported the reduction or cessation of services their child would often also receive in the school or early years environment. Notably, this included therapeutic interventions such as speech and language therapy, educational psychologists, physiotherapy and occupational health. In addition, there was also evidence of a decrease in both informal and formal support to the parents/carers due to the lockdown restrictions; the need to shield and/or the reported reduction or cessation of social care support packages. The second wave of the Family Fund Survey found that 55% of parents and carers in Scotland reported that managing their own physical and mental health was a key concern.
  • Recovery: Many parents and carers have expressed concern about keeping their disabled child/young person safe from COVID-19 as we move through and out of the crisis. Many disabled children and young people have disabilities/medical conditions which have required them to shield, and have intimate care, moving and handling, specific equipment and communication needs which require close interaction and contact.
  • Transitions: Many disabled children will be starting a new school or nursery for the first time in August 2020, or have now left school for the summer. The Health and Social Care Alliance raised concerns in their response to the Education and Skills Committee Inquiry, that children and young people transitioning into primary or secondary education have not had the opportunity to engage in their new environments and with their new staff. In addition, that lack of social work input and assessment regarding transition has resulted in family carers feeling stressed regarding the future packages of care for their young person leaving children's services and entering adult services.

v) Families with children with additional support needs

Children in Scotland run additional support for learning services and have captured a range of concerns from parents and carers regarding support for their children and their families. Parents and carers of children with additional support needs have reported to Enquire[m] that they are struggling to contact school, local authorities, social work or CAMHS and are having difficulties accessing support services (an issue further compounded by digital exclusion for some parents and carers). It is also reported that families are struggling to cope without seeing their usual support services such as advocates and support workers in person, who usually help them to understand information that is sent out to them (e.g. school placing request decisions). There were questions raised about how to access the childcare hubs for children with additional support needs, as there was uncertainty about who qualified for a place. There were also reported concerns from parents and carers about not knowing about placing request decisions and where a child will be going to school in August, which is raising anxiety levels for children and their families as this delay affects the ability to plan for and implement positive transitions.

vi) Kinship Families

Engagement work with organisations supporting kinship families undertaken by Scottish Government officials[25] found that the COVID-19 pandemic has both created new challenges for kinship families, as well as exacerbating existing underlying issues.

At the outset of lockdown, the Kinship Care Forum[n] was brought together by Scottish Government officials during the pandemic as a means to co-ordinate support, collaborate and share information about the issues arising for kinship families.

Key issues and concerns that have been raised during COVID include:

  • The mental wellbeing of children, young people and their carers
  • Carer health
  • Managing children's distressed behaviours
  • Financial worries and poverty
  • Lack of access to education hub provision
  • Managing learning
  • Contact
  • Safety of and arrangements for children returning to school (particularly where the carers are formally shielding or have underlying health conditions).

CELCIS reports that for foster carers and kinship carers, there have been ongoing concerns about transmission of the virus within their families and the need for contingencies if carers become unwell. CELCIS stated that there have been varying local approaches to assessing vulnerability and suggest this has led to inconsistencies nationally regarding which children and families have been offered support via Hubs.

vii) Families affected by domestic abuse

A qualitative study undertaken by Scottish Government Justice Analytical Services[o] explored the experiences of individuals and families experiencing domestic abuse during the first 8 weeks of lockdown (30/03/20- 22/05/20).

Services reported that, in some cases, children have experienced domestic abuse more severely during lockdown. There were reports of children being present in the room during domestic abuse, including physical violence. Services reported significant difficulties in engaging with children by telephone or other digital platforms, particularly younger children. Many practitioners perceived that because children do not have access to safe spaces or other trusted adults, there are fewer opportunities for them to report incidents and therefore perpetrator were being less cautious. Many services reported that, although perpetrator tactics did not change significantly, the impact and risk of domestic abuse was magnified by lockdown.

In relation to child contact, services reported that in some cases, parents who had been advised to shield were experiencing conflict over child contact as they felt unsafe to facilitate contact despite court orders/informal agreements. There were continued reports of perpetrators of domestic abuse socialising with friends and family in different households and thus exposing their child/children to other people during contact visits. In some cases, perpetrators were communicating their activities to their ex-partner, causing high levels of stress and anxiety, and, in some cases, this prompted mothers to stop contact.

Services have reported a range of abusive behaviours apparently specific to lockdown related to conflict over chid contact. It was commonly reported that perpetrators were asking children to show them round the house during video-contact. Services and clients perceived this as a means of extending their abuse by monitoring the victim and/or establishing where they live. There were some reports of abuse, taking place during handovers, particularly in cases where handover was previously facilitated by third parties such as schools. A number of services reported that women were facilitating child contact outwith the conditions of agreements/orders, in order to placate perpetrators and manage abuse. Services reported that guidance and legal advice from solicitors in family court cases was very varied. Some solicitors advised that clients may stop contact if they have concerns the child will be exposed to the virus, and in other cases solicitors advised clients to facilitate contact regardless of identified risks.

Referral rates for the majority of organisations decreased, significantly for some, in the initial 2-3 weeks of lockdown, but there were some indications that referrals were increasing as lockdown progressed. Digital exclusion was reported as a barrier to engaging with some clients. In some cases, where women had some limited device/internet access, this was prioritised for their children to allow them access to home schooling. Across the board, there were continued reports of clients contacting domestic abuse services for general support, particularly around gas and electricity, housing and food access. The majority of practitioners anticipated a potential increase in reporting and referrals once lockdown restrictions begin to be relaxed.

There were some specific challenges related to lockdown for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women, particularly related to legal applications and appeals, and separation from abusive partners. BME support organisations reported that women who are European Economic Area (EAA) nationals were not meeting habitual residency criteria and this was impacting on access to universal credit. This was exacerbated by lockdown due to delays in legal applications and the lack of employment opportunities. Services also reported that gaining access to the necessary documentation required for legal appeals (such as banking documents, proof of income, housing information) has been particularly challenging during lockdown[26].

viii) Black and Ethnic Minority Children, Young People and Families

Aberlour has reported a rise in applications to their Urgent Assistance Fund[p] for financial assistance from black and ethnic minority families due to COVID-19, in particular, from asylum seeking families and those with 'no recourse to public funds' (NRPF).

Licketyspit[q] has reported that they have encountered black and ethnic minority children who have English as an Additional Language (EAL) having to translate for anxious parents and experiencing anxiety and low feelings.

Evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on black and ethnic minority children, young people and families is still very limited. Further research is underway and more work is needed to understand the impact for these families, including the impact on refugee and migrant families.



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