News | Published August 01 2020

WillisPalmer CEO: families with no previous history with children’s services have been struggling

In April, Mark Willis, CEO of WillisPalmer, wrote in The Parliamentary Review about the negative effects he feared Covid-19 and the resultant lockdown would have on mental health and domestic harmony. Three months on, his predictions have come to pass. In this article, Willis outlines the true extent of the problem and shares the account of a frontline social worker. 

Referrals to children’s services have started to rise, despite most children not being back in education and schools being a main referrer.

As WillisPalmer predicted months ago, the pressures of lockdown including financial worries and anxieties around health have had a negative effect on vulnerable families resulting in mental ill health and an increase in substance misuse, culminating in domestic abuse incidents.

In fact, families with no previous history of involvement with children’s services have been struggling, requesting food bank vouchers and asking children’s services for their children to attend school to alleviate some pressures at home.

And families already known to children’s services have admitted struggling with their mental health and upping their drug and alcohol use to cope with the pressures of lockdown restrictions.

Meanwhile, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have risen dramatically during lockdown while visits to the helpline’s website have exploded, while victims have been literally incarcerated with their perpetrator of abuse.

A frontline social worker told WillisPalmer that while referrals to her team fell during lockdown, they have started to creep up to the same levels as prior to the restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19. The majority of referrals are from the police and are related to domestic abuse incidents.

“There are a few things going on. Couples are spending more time together in lockdown and forced to be in close proximity to their family. In these situations, people are drinking or using drugs more and their mental health is worsening. There are many families struggling financially and this sparks arguments and people are reacting differently to how they normally would.”

The social worker told us that she has also seen a rise in families experiencing financial problems and requesting food bank vouchers. However, many of the local schools are offering food hampers and free school meals to vulnerable children – even if they are not attending education – with some schools providing a delivery service for free lunches.

However, the worrying issue is that schools are one of the main sources of referrals to children’s services and while the social worker told us that schools have started to refer some children, there are still so few children in education, exacerbating many of the tensions at home when families are struggling.

School closed for most children in March aiming to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but remained open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Initially, the take up of school places was very low for vulnerable children with Department for Education figures showing that just 5 per cent of vulnerable children were attending school on Friday 17 April, although this rose to 15 per cent by mid-May.

Schools re-opened to various age groups from 1 June with most schools prioritising Reception and Years 1 and 6. However, plans for all age groups to return to school before the summer holidays had to be scrapped by the government.

Our source told us that it is normal that just before the summer break, teachers will make referrals for children who they are concerned about knowing they will be at home for six weeks. There is also typically a spike in September when children return to school and problems emerge.

But the social worker said she anticipates that this spike will be far greater this year when all children should be returning:

“We will definitely see an upsurge in referrals before the summer holidays and the longer this situation continues, people are worrying about finances, at home 24/7, drinking more which is impacting on their mental health, potentially taking more drugs and if it goes on to September we are going to be faced with a huge amount of families struggling to cope."

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Authored by

Mark Willis
Chief Executive, Willis Palmer
August 01 2020

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