As lockdown starts to lift we’re talking about social distancing in public, protecting the NHS, and of course how and whether we can get our children back to school by 1st June. However, clients and friends in children’s services are telling us about a new crisis hot on the heels of the pandemic and its aftermath. This one is about children in care, or referred to services as being at risk, and specialists are expecting a deluge of referrals once we get back to the ‘new normal’ we’re all talking about. A tsunami, in fact.

There are around 78,000 children in care, with many more classified as ‘in need’ and new cases referred at a rate of nearly 13,000 a week. Nearly 60% will be assessed as being ‘in need’ on referral and some will be taken formally into the care of local authorities, often to be housed with foster carers. Their need stems from having experienced abuse or deprivation on a scale that is unimaginable to many of us. It leaves them traumatised, developmentally delayed, and often undernourished, or injured by their experiences.

The problem that’s looming – and here’s the Tsunami parallel – is threefold. Under lockdown the normal referral systems haven’t been working, so there must be a backlog; families in difficulty have been under greater pressure, so there are more children needing support than usual; and the workforce providing the safety net – social workers and the foster carers they recruit and support -has been reduced so there’s limited resource to when the floods arrive…as they surely will, once lockdown eases.

In 2017-18, the three biggest sources of referrals were police (28.5%), schools (18.2%) and health services (14.8%) – the professionals who every day work in close contact with vulnerable children monitor the risk . Since lockdown began all three have lost their sight-line to many of these children. The safety net lies further off than normal and it’s woven much more loosely. Is it surprising, then, that referrals are reported as being as much as 50% down at a time when we should have been hitting one of the two annual peaks ?

In ‘normal’ times , over 50% of referrals entail suspected abuse or neglect. The three most prevalent additional factors are domestic violence (50%+), mental health of parents (40%+), and emotional abuse within the family (20%+) – all factors that we know are heightened under current circumstances. Safe to assume that a tidal wave of ‘children in need’ cases is building behind closed doors, waiting to make landfall just as referral networks can see them.

But what then? In early 2018 the UK was short of around 6,000 foster families. In early 2019 Ofsted reported falling numbers of foster carers, with many of those remaining reporting poor support from stretched local authorities. Our conversations with experts in the sector suggest that carer recruitment continues to be a challenge, even before adding in the difficulties that lockdown brings to recruitment, training and approval processes. The impact doesn’t stop there – with reduced numbers of new children coming into the system, and other financial challenges for foster families as a result of lockdown, we can expect to see a further reduction in the number of families available to take new children. Social workers – critical to making the system work, are also at a low ebb, with a quiet but steady drain of talent having reduced numbers over recent years, and the current need for remote working and an inability to visit families taking its toll. At the end of March Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, called for return of retired social workers, and for 30,000 experienced volunteers to help deal with the referrals she anticipated. Even if that is happening, it won’t solve the lack of fostering capacity. Even 30,000 might well be insufficient to deal with the huge wave of need we know is coming and that may well see a ‘normal’ rate of 13,000 weekly referrals to rise to over 20,000 from September to December. A number of those may well also need suitable accommodation with a foster family.

Three things are urgently needed. Firstly we do need the resources Anne sought, and more besides. That requires energy, focus from Central Government, and for local authority senior officials to open their eyes to what’s coming. Secondly we need Local Authorities not only to recognise the need but also to reach out to the social sector for support in managing the volume, finding foster parents and supporting them. Thirdly we need funding and, given the parlous state of finance of some local authorities, that probably means Central Government grant – ring- fenced to ensure it’s properly applied.

Without action, this new Tsunami will overwhelm us, and the risks of both the prominent tragedies of children dying, and the unseen ones of children left in abusive settings, will become very real indeed.

Jim Clifford OBE