The Scotsman

Vic­tims of child abuse must never be in­vis­i­ble again

After a surge in cases dur­ing lock­down, we must be­come a coun­try that cher­ishes ev­ery child, says Joanna Bar­rett

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This month, pro­pelled by the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment set­ting out its pro­gramme for the year ahead, we em­bark on the coun­try’s jour­ney towards heal­ing and much-needed re­cov­ery.

The coron­avirus pan­demic has been dev­as­tat­ing for so many peo­ple and it has ex­posed weak­nesses in our sys­tems sup­port­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble in so­ci­ety. We are deeply con­cerned about the im­pact the cri­sis has had on vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren, as we know it has ex­ac­er­bated the risks of abuse and ne­glect for many.

In March, schools and nurs­eries closed for most chil­dren and our ap­proaches to child pro­tec­tion trans­formed overnight; the young were hid­den away be­hind closed doors, be­com­ing in­vis­i­ble to many ser­vices – a dev­as­tat­ing sit­u­a­tion for those for whom home is not al­ways a safe place.

Amid lock­down, we saw fam­i­lies who had barely been cop­ing be­fore Covid-19 be­ing pushed to cri­sis point. Our staff sup­ported par­ents car­ing for chil­dren around the clock, in­clud­ing those with ad­di­tional needs, while strug­gling with men­tal health is­sues, sub­stance mis­use, do­mes­tic abuse and poverty.

Our Child­line ser­vice saw an in­crease in chil­dren and young peo­ple get­ting in touch about their men­tal and emo­tional health, many telling us about phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse at home. Some chil­dren talked to our coun­sel­lors about feel­ing ex­tremely lonely, par­tic­u­larly if they were spend­ing most of their time at home with some­one who was abus­ing them.

The num­ber of re­fer­rals by our helpline about chil­dren at risk made to Po­lice Scot­land and other Scot­tish agen­cies in­creased con­sis­tently in the months fol­low­ing the start of lock­down; with the av­er­age monthly num­ber of re­fer­rals, after stay-ath­ome rules were is­sued, be­ing more than 50 per cent higher than in the months prior to this. The main rea­sons that chil­dren were re­ferred were be­cause of parental be­hav­iour, phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse and ne­glect.

Chil­dren not only faced an in­creased risk in the home dur­ing lock­down but also on­line; the greater amount of time they were spend­ing on dig­i­tal de­vices gave those look­ing to ex­ploit chil­dren an un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity. Po­lice Scot­land recorded a higher num­ber of on­line sex­ual abuse crimes against chil­dren in June than in any other month on record.

We know that ex­pe­ri­enc­ing any kind of abuse can have long-last­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects on a child. They may go on to de­velop men­tal health is­sues or dis­play chal­leng­ing be­hav­iour, and it can af­fect young chil­dren’s devel­op­ment.

But ev­i­dence shows that, with the right sup­port at the right time, chil­dren can re­cover from such ex­pe­ri­ences.

And we are en­cour­aged to see the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment, set out in its Pro­gramme for Gov­ern­ment 2020-21, to build up chil­dren’s health and well-be­ing ser­vices.

With most of the coun­try now emerg­ing from lock­down and many chil­dren hav­ing re­turned to school, we an­tic­i­pate that the ex­pe­ri­ences of young peo­ple dur­ing this un­prece­dented time will in­creas­ingly come to light. It is, there­fore, im­per­a­tive that schools are equipped to recog­nise and re­spond sen­si­tively to chil­dren who have en­dured ad­verse ex­pe­ri­ences. And we be­lieve the new “men­tal health train­ing and learn­ing re­source for all school staff ”, the Gov­ern­ment has pledged to cre­ate and de­liver, should in­clude

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