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
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