Public Sector organisations are bracing themselves for a future raft of civil claims involving alleged failure to protect and failure to remove children from abusive environments and perpetrators during the recent period of lockdown due to COVID-19. The government imposed lockdown restrictions on 23 March 2020 and closed schools, nurseries and other children’s services with very little notice. Whilst some schools remained open for keyworkers’ children and those considered to be the most vulnerable, many vulnerable children have not attended school for six months. GP practices and other professions have not had physical appointments for many months either. Public Sector organisations themselves have been affected by COVID-19 logistically and many organisations have been unable to have physical contact with vulnerable children. Without the usual safeguarding personnel, trusted adults and support networks being available; the ‘perfect storm’ for child abuse was created.
Initial statistics suggest that during the lockdown period there was a huge rise in online abuse, familial abuse, county lines exploitation and child sexual exploitation.
With both adults and children working at home and spending significantly more time online, strangers have been more easily able to contact children via social media, gaming and apps and less open to social scrutiny. The National Crime Agency reported a 10% increase in cases of online grooming during the 13 weeks of lockdown. In addition, there has been a 50% increase in child abuse images online. Worryingly, statistics also suggest an 89% drop in online abuse deletions by tech companies during lockdown.
Familial abuse of children has also surged during lockdown with record numbers of children and adults contacting the NSPCC with child welfare concerns about parental behaviour, neglect and the physical and emotional abuse of vulnerable children at home full time with their abusers. The NSPCC has reported an increase in referrals of approximately one-third during lockdown, and of those they referred approximately 40% onto Public Sector organisations such as local authorities and the police.
County lines gangs have taken advantage of lockdown by exploiting children, grooming new recruits, obtaining new locations to supply drugs and have also been known to dress children as keyworkers and takeaway delivery drivers during lockdown as a way for them to deliver drugs on their behalf.
Child sexual exploitation generally is much higher, with children in care and known to be vulnerable to various agencies, most at risk. There are instances of social workers having to take vulnerable children into their own homes because they couldn’t place them and others having to do home visits from front gardens, highlighting the difficulties presented.
The increase in child abuse during lockdown is appalling and the effects on vulnerable children won’t be known for some time. Charities have urged the government to provide more funding to Public Sector organisations, in particular child protection functions/services, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions in order to better safeguard and help victims through the trauma they suffered during the lockdown period. As Public Sector organisations can be liable under common law and the Human Rights Act for any damage caused to victims through missed opportunities and negligence, coupled with the widening gap between resources and demand, this suggests the potential for civil claims to follow for children who slipped through the net during lockdown is high. It remains to be seen how the court will deal with the interaction of lockdown with law and best practice in relation to caring for vulnerable children and whether a different standard will be imposed in relation to duties of care during the lockdown period.
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