Vulnerable children report: 15 May 2020

This is the second report from the Scottish Government with SOLACE and other partners, on the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on children and families, and on the ways that services for children have responded. It identifies critical issues for services for children going forward.

Impact of the outbreak on children and families

6. It is widely acknowledged that many children and young people will be impacted significantly and for a considerable time by the COVID-19 outbreak and the unintended consequences of actions taken to control the pandemic.

7. The anticipated impact on children from physical distancing include on mental health, socialisation and attachment (particularly for younger children). This will affect cognitive, emotional and behavioural functioning and may require significant intervention over the medium and longer term.

8. Some children are more at risk due to individual characteristics, such as disabilities, mental health or neurodevelopmental factors. Some are more at risk due to factors in their immediate environment such as parental relationship conflict, domestic abuse, or the health needs of their parents. Some are also more at risk because of other parental factors such as age or learning disability. An additional high risk group are those due to make transitions, for example into school, between schools, or from school to college or employment.

9. There are increased risks as a result of financial circumstances. Those who experienced financial disadvantage prior to COVID-19, continue to do so. For many other families, the financial impact due to reduced income, and loss of work or reduced working hours, will present challenges that they haven't had to face before. A study of 500 households by IPPR Scotland found that around one in five families described themselves as being in "serious financial difficulty" while a further 29% said they were "struggling to make ends meet".

10. There are increased risks of abuse, and of neglect within families, with additional stresses from changes to early learning and childcare, school and business closures, family confinement and isolation, alongside physical and psychological health impacts.

11. There is also an increased risk of harm outside families. Children are spending more time online and are at greater risk of online grooming and exploitation. Children who aren't staying at home and are spending more time outside, potentially meeting in covert locations to avoid being found breaking the lockdown, are more visible to individuals who may want to sexually or criminally exploit them.

12. At the same time, given the radically changed circumstances of the lockdown, with many families having more time to together, it has also offered opportunities for family relationships to be strengthened, and it is clear that many families are valuing and benefitting from aspects of this experience.

13. Young Scot, the Scottish Youth Parliament, and YouthLink Scotland have published a survey of nearly 2,500 young people from across Scotland on their concerns about COVID-19.

14. Key findings include:

  • Around half of respondents stated they are moderately or extremely concerned about exams and coursework.
  • Two fifths of respondents stated they are moderately or extremely concerned about their mental wellbeing.
  • Two thirds of respondents stated that they are moderately or extremely concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on their future.
  • Two fifths of respondents aren't confident about accessing information on mental health, and over half don't know where to access information on financial support.
  • Respondents stated that decision-makers should improve the impact on education and make restrictions even stricter.

Click here for the full report.

15. The Children's Parliament has published a survey of around 4,000 children aged between 8 and 14 years. This indicates that most children of this age are doing well during the lockdown, through the support of parents, carers, sisters and brothers and friends. Most say that they have an adult they can go to with worries, and that they feel safe at home.

16. There are indications that girls are doing less well than boys, including because of their general mood, feeling bored, worries, and feeling like they lack 'energy'.

17. There are also indications that older children aged 12 to 14 are doing less well than younger children, including loneliness, feeling bored, not being able to exercise, and not feeling that they are able to express their opinions.

Click here for the report.

18. Albeit contacts are anonymous, Childline is intending to produce Scottish data. Across the UK, the use of Childline by children and young people has altered significantly since the start of the outbreak. At the end of April, Childline telephone chat was at around 75% of levels seen in February and early March. However, the number of personal emails sent to Childline started to increase from 21 March, and this has continued at around 42% above pre-lockdown levels.

19. In the week 20 – 26 April, COVID-19 was raised by young people in around 20% of counselling sessions held by Childline. When talking about coronavirus, the main concerns were:

  • Mental/emotional health
  • Family Relationships
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Self-harm

20. The numbers of children and young people talking to the service overall about mental and emotional health issues[2], including suicidal feelings, and family relationship problems has increased during the lockdown period.

21. Childline state that:

"Based on the stories children have been sharing in recent weeks, family conflict seems to be particularly rife where the child is living in overcrowded households, often with multiple siblings and elderly relatives. Children in these environments tell us they feel 'bored', 'exhausted', 'trapped' with 'barely space to breath".

22. In relation to children and young people contacting Childline about abuse, the numbers talking to the service about physical abuse and emotional abuse have increased in the lockdown period. The number of counselling sessions about domestic abuse also appears to be proportionally higher since lockdown. Calls to the NSPCC helpline about domestic abuse and about emotional abuse have risen in the lockdown period, as well as calls about parental alcohol and/or substance misuse.

23. The Children 1st Parentline service continues to see a growing number of calls, web chats, and hits on the website for information. In particular, this is indicating:

  • Increased anxiety and distress in already vulnerable families due to the impact of coronavirus worries on health, and the impact of lockdown on finances, relationships and lack of usual supports.
  • An increase in the level of complexity of calls; parents who are expressing suicidal thoughts, parents where recovery from addiction is breaking down, in one case a parent calling after taking an overdose.
  • Increased conflict in family relationships particularly around contact and separated parents.
  • Parents struggling to manage children's emotional wellbeing and anxiety.
  • Many families do not have any personal devices and can't access online learning and other support – (we have now received devices and are getting them to families this week).
  • Children and young people are describing feeling worried about going back to school, and returning to some of the previous stressors that they had in their lives. Parents are worried about physical safety of children but also about how they will cope with work demands if children don't go back.
  • Many kinship care families are struggling to cope with worries about their health and finances, and about what might happen to their children. Expressing a lack of local supports. Poor access to school hubs in many circumstances.
  • Some parents working in 'keyworker' or 'essential worker' roles are concerned about the impact of this on their own emotional wellbeing and that of their children.

24. The One Parent Families Scotland helpline has had a 300% increase in calls and online support. They suggest there is a lack of recognition of the needs of diverse families and single parents' circumstances, referencing the process for key workers to access childcare and the definition of vulnerable families. They are finalising a briefing on the support that one parent families currently need, as well as the likely issues in the recovery phase.

25. The Ethnic Minority Resilience Network hosted by BEMIS, is indicating that the COVID-19 outbreak is particularly impacting on BME communities, including because of:

  • Prejudice directed towards Far East Asian communities.
  • Poverty and overcrowding.
  • High employment of family members in health and care services.
  • No recourse to public funds for some individuals and families
  • Digital connectivity inequality.

26. It is also clear that the pandemic is having a significant impact on families affected by disability. The Family Fund conducted a survey in early April with 232 Scottish families, finding that:

  • More than two in five families had lost income.
  • Many were struggling to access or afford food, and had gone without hygiene products, toiletries and medicine.
  • The mental health of the majority of disabled or seriously ill children is being negatively impacted.

27. The Scottish Commission for Learning Disability has expressed concerns regarding the accessibility of additional support for learning, especially for low income families who may not have access to online learning.

28. Aberlour have shared two briefing papers which include information on issues facing disabled children and their families, confirming that "the impact on routines and accessibility of support has caused significant disruption, anxiety and stress."

29. It is important to recognise however, that as well as reporting on the challenges for families during the lockdown, 3rd sector organisations and others report that they have seen many families thrive over the past eight weeks. The Chief Executive of Children in Scotland says: "we have seen families finding their way through this crisis, often without having to ask for help from services, and through being resilient."

30. The Chief Executive of Children 1st says: "there are some incredible stories of strength coming from the children and families that we get alongside" and also that "there are really interesting insights about the relief families feel as they have fewer professional systems and 'helpers' to deal with. We should have conversations about reaching deep into communities, to help find the solutions."

31. The Convenor of Social Work Scotland has responded: "our social workers are hearing the same message….this is a time to reflect."



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