With almost every aspect of our lives affected by coronavirus (COVID-19), attention is quickly turning to the implications for the safeguarding of children and young people.
The broader child protection implications of COVID-19 were recently explored in a briefing published by Unicef, which highlighted the social-ecological impact of the virus and the potential negative effects of prevention measures. The identified factors – such as increased family poverty, social isolation and psychosocial distress – are certainly pertinent to young people facing extra-familial harm, and there may be further issues that are specifically relevant to this group.
Social distancing and ‘lockdown’ measures are very likely to mean a lack of (or certainly, reduction in) adult supervision of public spaces. Those selling and buying drugs, and those exploiting young people in other ways, may be operating without the usual presence of professionals or members of the public. Young people ensnared in criminal or sexual exploitation may be continuing to leave the house against the wishes of their parents and carers – indeed, they may feel too scared not to – and this presents risks not only in terms of their exploitation by others but also in terms of infection and transmission. This may be particularly worrying for grandparent kinship carers, where they could be at heightened risk due to age. The same issues present for those in residential care and may be exacerbated by staff shortages within these settings.
The closure of educational settings also presents a potential risk. The Children’s Society recently warned that criminals could take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to target young people who may be isolated from their usual support networks or missing supervision and support offered by school, college and other education settings. Whilst schools remain open for those classed as ‘vulnerable’, many children and young people not defined as ‘vulnerable’ could be left exposed to grooming by gang members. Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker, and those children and young people up to the age of 25 with education, health and care (EHC) plans. Becky Fedia, manager of the charity’s Disrupting Exploitation Programme, said: ‘School provides a safe place and supervision for vulnerable children, and it is a real concern that without this they may be more at risk of being targeted by criminals seeking to exploit them’.
It is important to note that whilst education is a protective factor for young people, the educational setting may not be a safe space for some – if, for example, peer-on-peer abuse occurs in school. Where local areas have created ‘school hubs’ (where schools/ colleges collaborate and students and/or staff from multiple settings are clustered in one place), this might present additional risks to some young people – for example, if rival gang members or peers presenting sexually harmful behaviour are also in attendance.
In thinking specifically about those young people trapped in drug trafficking and drug-related criminal activity, there may be particular ramifications of COVID-19. A recent report from the Policy Exchange think tank noted that violence associated with street gangs who depend on income from an illegal street-based drugs market could be an important issue. The authors note that reduced demand for some drugs (e.g. cocaine) ‘may cause an increase in intergang rivalry faced with dwindling revenue streams, resulting in increased violence’. Whereas the closure of pubs and nightclubs is likely to reduce some forms of street-based violence, they suggest that ‘youth homicide linked to gangs may continue at the current high levels’. The same report suggests that a reduction in police use of stop and search and a reduction in neighbourhood policing ‘may embolden street gangs, increasing their sense of impunity’.
Trafficked children and young people are highlighted as a group that may be particularly vulnerable. ECPAT UK (a children's rights organisation focused on child trafficking and transnational exploitation) highlight the global and domestic implications of the current crisis, explaining in a recent post that ‘Essential frontline services for survivors are struggling to remain operational as staff work from home, while specialist accommodation services close their doors to new arrivals due to fears of contracting COVID-19. This has left some young people at high risk of homelessness’. They explain that many children and young people are now re-traumatised by social isolation, facing delays in immigration decisions and so ‘are more vulnerable than ever to those who seek to exploit them’.
The planned early release of prisoners, including a number of young people currently held within the secure estate, may also present a level of risk if these people do not have adequate support and supervision within their local areas. And young people going missing from home or care could also face increased risk; the charity Missing People believe that increased financial hardship, isolation and unsafe environments could lead to more people going missing with risk compounded by the lack of social support and reduced police capacity to investigate.
The issue of racial disproportionality is also relevant. Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system highlighted the over-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) young people affected by criminality, whilst others have highlighted the disproportionate effect of austerity on BAME families. Emerging evidence from the United States suggests that BAME communities may be hit hardest by COVID-19 (likely due to a range of intersecting factors, including cramped housing and access to medical care). These issues, combined with figures showing that BAME people make up a large proportion of the health workforce, could mean that BAME children and young people are especially vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19.
The sharp upsurge in use of digital technology and social media is of note. Whilst positive in terms of children and young people being connected to and supported by peers, this also presents potential heightened risk of technology-enabled exploitation. It was recently reported that Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, has seen ‘increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material’ and the NCA recently reported that intelligence from online chat shows that offenders are discussing opportunities to abuse children during the COVID-19 crisis. As with other forms of extra-familial harm, online sexual exploitation frequently involves peer-on-peer abuse. The use of apps with ‘locked room’ functionality may mean that young people are in very unsafe online spaces, with no observers. The National Police Chief’s Council report that ‘since schools closed there has been decreased reporting from professionals, such as teachers and social workers, however the level of reports from children has remained stable’.
However, there may be some positive effects of this increase in online activity; with many practitioners now using new technology to work we might be hopeful this will lead to increased digital professionalism and enhanced capabilities in safeguarding young people from online harm.
Youth work and other outreach support is essential to understanding and addressing the risks that young people may face as a result of COVID-19. A recent survey by UK Youth offers a useful snapshot of the concerns of youth services and shows how swiftly many organisations have adapted to using virtual methods to provide support to young people. Yet with local authorities facing unprecedented pressure, and the voluntary sector grappling with funding shortages (a £750m package for charities was very recently announced, which whilst welcome falls significantly short of addressing the £4bn funding gap identified), such vital support may not be available.
It is crucial that professionals from all agencies work to understand whether – and how – these potential risks are playing out for young people in their local area in the context of COVID-19. Here, Beckett’s ‘interconnected conditions of abuse’ (Beckett, H. 2011) offer a useful framework: the risk posed by perpetrators should be considered alongside the young person’s vulnerability (which is influenced by internal and external factors) and the adequacy, or inadequacy, of protective structures.
It is only by working collaboratively and tenaciously that such risks can be mitigated. When life returns to whatever the ‘new normal’ is, we need to look back knowing that we did whatever we could to hold our children close.
Join the discussion
The Tackling Child Exploitation Programme will be facilitating a series of interactive online discussions to help local areas explore the implications of COVID-19 on young people facing exploitation and extra-familial harm. Local areas should nominate a colleague able to represent the multi-agency partnership.
- Thursday 30 April at 11.00-12.30.
- Thursday 30 April at 17.30-19.00.
- Friday 1 May at 14.00-15.30.
To request a place, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, role and preferred session.
- Online safety resources from CEOP which includes its programme providing 15-minute activities to parents and carers to do with their children.
- The NCA is also releasing COVID-19 specific content through Parent Info, a news feed and website the NCA runs with digital family experts Parent Zone.
- Government have published advice for parents & carers about helping children and young people be safe online.