We know from research that the risk of child maltreatment increases when parents and carers become overloaded with stressors and children’s circumstances make them vulnerable to danger and exploitation.
The last 14 weeks of lockdown have thrown most of our normal lives and routines into disarray and temporarily created conditions for many families across the UK that are more typically associated with families living in entrenched social isolation or multiple deprivation. Many organisations have already expressed concerns about the impact of these changes on children and families and the possibility that this may result in an increase in child abuse and neglect (Children’s Commissioner, 2020a, 2020b; UNICEF, 2020b; The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, 2020; National Crime Agency, 2020; NSPCC, 2020a; UK Youth, 2020; ECPAT International, 2020; Taddei, 2020; The Children’s Society, 2020).
The NSPCC has pulled together research evidence to look at whether the conditions imposed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have increased the risk of child maltreatment in the UK. This is supported by the practice insights of our staff who have been supporting families during lockdown and analysis of calls received by Childline and the NSPCC Helpline.
The review found three areas of risk:
Increased stressors for parents and care givers
Parents and caregivers are facing increased financial insecurity and alterations to their daily routines. Many are juggling work commitments with child care and care for other family members who may be shielding or have become ill. Research tells us that without support, this may lead to mental and emotional health issues (Tunnard, 2004; Mistry et al, 2007).
Parents and carers may use negative coping strategies to manage these feelings, such as withdrawal behaviours where they interact less frequently with their child and do not supervise their behaviour as much (Szymańska & Dobrenko, 2017; Repetti, 1992; Peterson & Hennon, 2005), or substance misuse (Keyes et al, 2012). Evidence links both of these behaviours to child maltreatment (Rodriguez-JenKins & Marcenko, 2014; National Institute for Health and Care Excellence [NICE], 2017: ES106, ES107, ES108; Laslett et al, 2012). The exacerbation of stressors for parents who may have already been struggling and the emergence of new stressors for more families increases the risk of physical and emotional abuse, domestic abuse, neglect and online harms (Capaldi et al, 2012; Stith et al, 2004; Sesar et al, 2015; Lopez-Castro & Priegue, 2019; Baldry et al, 2019; Livingstone et al, 2017a; Livingstone et al, 2017b). However, research also tells us that social support can mitigate these risks (Tucker & Rodriguez, 2014; Iwaniec et al, 2006; Ridings et al, 2017; Prendergast & MacPhee, 2020; Simmel et al, 2016; Osofsky et al, 2000).
‘Telephone contact is containing some families, varying between daily and weekly calls, others are really struggling and isolated and the telephone contact does not feel enough.’
Together for Childhood Diaries Project
Increased vulnerabilities for children and young people
For most children and young people, this has been the longest time spent away from their friends and trusted adults outside their home. We know that lockdown has affected the emotional and mental health of children and young people (Lee, 2020) and changes to their routine have created some new vulnerabilities and exacerbated existing ones. Young people are spending more time online using social media (Kids Insights, 2020) and the risk of online harm and grooming has increased at a time when demand for child sexual materials has also increased (Europol, 2020). There may be less protection at home if caregivers are overburdened and levels of supervision have reduced. Research tells us that children are more susceptible to grooming if they feel lonely or uncared for (Whittle et al, 2014).
For children who were already experiencing abuse and neglect in the home, lockdown has increased their exposure to potential harm and reduced access to protective adults outside the home. However, we know from research that these risks can be reduced if caregivers, trusted adults and communities support and protect young people (Hazler & Denham, 2002; Davies, 2004).
Reduction in normal protective services
These risks to children and young people have come at a time when their interaction with the services and social institutions designed to help them have reduced due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Universal services like schools, GPs, children’s centres, and health visiting are vital for detecting early signs of abuse and neglect, as are non-statutory early help interventions for families, and youth services. All these have either paused or limited their face-to-face delivery to comply with social distancing measures (Department for Education, 2020a; NHS England, 2020; NYA, 2020a; Wilson & Waddell, 2020). There is also less support and scrutiny from friends, relatives and neighbours. Some of the systems designed to detect criminal activity have also been compromised due to lockdown (Cowls et al, 2020; Internet Watch Foundation, 2020a).
‘It’s important families still feel our presence and the support of our service, even though it looks slightly different.’
COVID-19 case studies by NSPCC practitioners
The evidence reviewed in the briefing confirms the warnings raised about the effects of the pandemic on child maltreatment. The combined effects of increased stressors on caregivers, increased child vulnerability and reduced safeguards increases the potential for new and recurring cases of abuse.
These risks are likely to continue while schools, childcare settings, working conditions and normal protective services are disrupted. Given the potential for ongoing financial insecurity and potential recurrences of COVID-19, these issues are likely to remain even when lockdown is eased.
However, we believe there are solutions to this crisis and have set out a range of recommendations to:
- ease the stress on parents and carers;
- respond to the increased vulnerability of children and young people; and
- rebuild child protection services and put children’s needs at the centre of recovery plans.
Head to NSPCC Learning to read the full briefing and recommendations for how we can protect children during the pandemic.