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The COVID-19 crisis continues to change how social services ensure the continuity of care for the most vulnerable children. To understand the challenges social services are currently facing in protecting and supporting children, and the responses they have developed to address these, the European Social Network (ESN) organised and facilitated, on the 22nd of May, the webinar ‘COVID-19 and Child Protection – Meeting challenges and future planning through the Child Guarantee’.

The aim of the webinar was to discuss, with public child protection agencies, academics and the European Parliament, what can we learned from the current crisis to inform future planning to protect children and how can we support these plans through available national and European instruments.

Children’s Social Services and Covid-19 – Challenge and Responses

“Many children and young people will be impacted significantly and for a considerable time by the COVID-19 lockdown” said Iona Colvin – Interim Director for Children and Families, Government of Scotland. In effect, there have been numerous and difficult challenges for children’s social services in their response to COVID-19.

ESN members reported a general drop in the number of child protection cases at the start, but have since reported a steady rise to the same levels in 2019, though these previous levels will be surpassed in 2020. The primary reasons highlighted for this were the effects on children and young people’s mental health, increased prevalence in domestic abuse or children subject to abuse and a loss in family income.

In other national contexts, ESN members also highlighted disjointed coordination. “We can say that there is a great level of territorial disparity and inequality between different levels of administration” argued Marie-Paule Martin-Blachais, from Ecole de la Protection de l’Enfance in France. Adding to this, Paola Milani, from the University of Padova, noted that “The lack of responses to children’s development needs, the consequent various forms of educational, social and economic poverty have severe and lasting effects on several dimensions of development.”

Learning form the Crisis - Future planning for children’s social services

“We are all experiencing similar issues and challenges, this is an opportunity to build in our countries stronger child and family policies and practices” Prof. Paola Milani, University of Padova. There was broad agreement on how children’s social services can learn from the crisis amongst the speakers.

These areas of agreement can be captured in three action points: First, improve outreach and community-based services to ensure the continuity of care and support to children. “In the future we need to have rapid growth in community-based activity supporting children and families, to ensure the continuity of support for vulnerable children” argued Iona Colvin.

Second, the need to develop a whole system working approach, not just with public authorities but also with the private and NGO sector. “We need to have the involvement of civil society [and other actors] to help public services” explained Marie-Paule Martin-Blachais., Ecole de la Protection de l’Enfance.

Third, contributors highlighted the need for new training on how to work closer with families, use new technology, have guidelines to coach phone call and other types of communications media. Specifically, for Italy, the crisis is being viewed as an opportunity to create a Family and Child Act, which would “reinforce the cross-sectorial and multidimensional nature of interventions, integrating promotion, prevention and protection” concluded Paola Milani.

Addressing the needs of children at the European level

Addressing participants, MEP Dragos Pislaru highlighted the importance of a Child guarantee, especially as part of the recovery plan for Europe. There was broad consensus on the need to ensure that the recovery plan would have a focus on children, which the Child Guarantee and its 2013 predecessor, the Recommendation Investing in Children recommends. However, implementation at national, regional and local level remains an issue.

MEP Pislaru suggested a three-pronged approach. First, the need for an open discussion on the future of children. Second, highlight the need to reflect the local level, bringing into focus the partnership between public authorities and the private and NGO sectors to meet collectively the challenges for children. Third, the promotion and scaling up of projects and programmes that have been effective.

Moving forward

The following thoughts were captured to ensure that children’s social services are better placed to protect children in the future. Firstly, there needs to be a coordinated response.

Secondly, we need to understand the impact of lockdown on children’s wellbeing. Thirdly, there are elevated risk factors: increased risk of poverty due to unemployment, proximately to aggressors heightens domestic abuse and violence, disruption to continuity of care, educational pathways and health.

Finally, there is a need for institutional reinforcement: coordinated responses; future interventions based on lived experience/expertise and new community care models, as well as, ensuring ongoing training, supporting professionals with new technologies.

“Robert Schumann, Europe’s founding father, highlighted the need for solidarity in Europe. Now we need to show solidarity to support our future generation, by investing in children” MEP Dragos Pislaru Renew Europe.