In the period directly after children returned to school, specialist domestic abuse recovery services and children's court advocacy services experienced significant challenges in negotiating access to school buildings due to the Coronavirus restrictions. For organisations that offered adult and children's services, recovery and support work with children was reported as the greatest priority and challenge for their organisation, and was described by one national service manager as a "nightmare" and by another as "really challenging". This was particularly restrictive in secondary schools, however it was reported that access permitted to both primary and secondary schools varied between local authorities and even within local areas. Specialist domestic abuse recovery services for children have experienced challenges in providing support to children in person during the school day, for example, accessing school buildings or children being prohibited from leaving to attend group work in other venues and returning to school premises during the school day. Some projects have responded by offering virtual therapeutic group work by liaising with the school to negotiate a safe space for the attendee to participate remotely during the school day; others have offered in person therapeutic group work at the end of the school day, meaning children are not returning to school following the session. Some services were restricted in when and where they could engage with children, with some organisations restricting support work to after school and a number of service managers communicating that identifying appropriate spaces to engage with children face-to-face was difficult, particularly in cases where their homes were not safe spaces (or considered safe by the child). Some organisations had facilitated support sessions in outdoor public places, such as parks, but it was recognised this was not a long-term solution, particularly over the winter months. Some support services provided virtual support services, however in many cases children did not have access to devices and/or private spaces within school, or where devices were available the security settings did not allow calls from external agencies.
In some areas, liaison between services and schools has effectively resolved these issues, and from mid-September onwards, some areas had agreed access protocols for practitioners. In other areas, the issues remain unresolved, with schools continuing to prohibit access.
Organisations reported that clients had varying experiences relating to children's' return to school. For some, the reopening of schools caused increased stress and anxiety because victims were not aware of their child's whereabouts at all times (as they had been during lockdown) and they had concerns regarding perpetrators' access to children at school and perpetrators' knowledge of their routine and routes. For others, schools' access restrictions, which prohibited adults from entering school grounds, served as reassurance to victims because the abusive parent could not gain illegitimate access to the child. One organisation provided some empirical examples of an abusive parent who had contacted the school requesting to know whether their child was present however, due to being unable to gain proof of their identity, the school had been unable to disclose the information to the perpetrator.
A number of specialist children's organisations communicated significant concerns for the 'generation' of children who had experienced domestic abuse but were currently missing out on recovery work. One specialist children's organisation communicated that staff felt virtual recovery work was simply not effective with children and engagement required to be face-to-face in a play (or other appropriate) setting to achieve the required outcomes. Another organisation communicated that children were on long waiting lists to access Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), which had been inaccessible during lockdown, and the lack of mental health support for children was of significant concern. Some organisations had amended the content of their sessions to focus on practical and wellbeing support for mothers and children (rather than therapeutic recovery work) and/or had provided recreation and activity packs for children and young people, and initial feedback was positive.