Being a safeguarding lead in an early years setting is always a challenge.
But as we find ourselves in this unique situation, in the UK and around the world, it’s fair to say that these challenges have grown and in many cases become particularly complex.
Once more, we’re having to rethink our approach, and apply new strategies that mean practitioners and safeguarding leads especially can keep the children in their settings safe and protected.
To begin with, here’s where we are now.
Working with vulnerable children during the COVID – 19 crisis
When the government closed schools and nurseries throughout the country, they also gave directives on which ‘vulnerable’ children should remain in actual, physical contact with professionals in schools or childcare provision.
Those defined as vulnerable by the Government in their March 19th guidance, include children who:
- are supported by social care
- have safeguarding and welfare needs
- have a child in need or child protection plan
- are ‘looked after’
- are young carers
- have disabilities
- are subject to an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan
However, since then a number of pre-lockdown concerns from professionals have sadly come to pass. With vulnerable children not being seen for a significant period of time, risks are heightened and the prospects of help from others reduced significantly.
Government statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic so far, currently conclude:
- Just 10% of children and young people classified as ‘Children in Need’ or who have an Education, Health and Care plan are estimated by the DfE to have been in school at the end of a 5 week period of data collection on the number of vulnerable pupils attending school.
- A 120% rise in the numbers of calls to a domestic abuse national helpline, with statistics continuing to rise.
- A 25%- 50% reduction in the numbers of referrals to children’s social care in some areas has been noted by Anne Longfield.
This final statistic is particularly concerning. It goes without saying that a reduction in referrals does not mean that there is a reduction in the number of cases needing to be referred. This serves as a stark reminder that children rely significantly upon staff in schools and childcare provisions to report their concerns and to protect them.
And that’s not all. Home Secretary Priti Patel has highlighted that as well as rising concerns for victims of domestic abuse, there is an increased level of online activity from sexual predators taking advantage of that fact that more children right now are accessing the internet at home.
The vulnerability gap
One of the questions that still remains, in the current situation and beyond, is how we can truly define ‘vulnerable’.
Safeguarding leads working with children and families will know that vulnerability encompasses so many things and can often be wide-ranging.
What’s more, children who are not known to social care will often be those most exposed to risk.
In fact, research suggests that almost half of children who are subjects of serious case reviews will not have been known to statutory services prior to their deaths or at the point when serious injury or incidents occurred.
So what about those children who don’t fit into the government’s definition of vulnerable?
This could be:
- Children who have not yet met thresholds for statutory services to engage with and support them
- Children who are receiving early help services
- Children who have moved down the threshold and are no longer on a child protection or child-in-need plan
- Children for whom safeguarding leads are still working hard to alert services to the need for help and protection
The same goes for children that, before lockdown began, early years staff could be thankful and relieved to provide safety, respite and stability for at least part of their day.
These are just some of the safeguarding and child protection dilemmas that the sector is getting to grips with whether their settings remain open or have temporarily closed.
How are practitioners meeting statutory requirements to keep children safe?
There is no doubt that children rely on people such as early years practitioners to keep them safe. And I know that you still remain resilient and determined to do so whatever obstacles you mightface.
The requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage state that providers must be alert to any issues of concern in the child’s life at home or elsewhere. Did we ever imagine how this might translate to a scenario we could barely imagine just months ago? I think not. It is one thing to be alert to issues, but another to know how we might respond to signs of abuse and neglect when we have limited or no actual contact with a vulnerable child.
Large numbers of early years practitioners are still supporting children in their setting and so of course continue to engage with them directly on a regular basis.
Likewise, many are also reaching out to children who are at home to make sure they’re safe and maintain communication with parents as a means of checking on and monitoring their child’s well-being. These kinds of conversations may literally provide a lifeline to many vulnerable children and families.
How to have conversations with parents
Safeguarding leads have lots of experience with having difficult conversations about children’s well-being. Some of the key principles when having difficult conversations haven’t changed because of Covid-19. They should:
- always be ‘child centred’ and focused on the safety and needs of the child
- be purposeful and provide clarity
- offer opportunities for practitioners to use open-ended questions that help determine the situation or circumstances for the child
- enable the practitioner to make professional judgements based upon responses and take appropriate actions should they need to
Below are a few conversation starters that might be helpful when speaking to parents of vulnerable children over the phone, but first of all be mindful that they:
- don’t necessarily feel singled out or targeted
- understand that your motives are child-centred and genuine
- are aware that your safeguarding responsibilities include times when their child is at home as well as when they physically attend the setting
- appreciate your professional role in that you can support wider issues of children and family well-being within your own community networks and partnerships
It’s important to make sure that you have relevant information and plans in place should you need to signpost parents appropriately to others who can support them. In particular, knowledge of your local community responses during COVID-19 will be vital. These services might include:
- Statutory services – children’s services social care / adults services social care
- Early help services (LA)
- Local Authority hubs and community provision
- Organisations that support victims of domestic abuse
- Mental health support
- NHS advice
- Food banks and local charities
- Faith groups and churches
- Advocacy groups offering advice on debt, housing, legal rights etc
- Other local charities supporting families with various needs
If you do need to take action as a result of the conversation you have with parents, you have to be clear of the reporting and referral processes. If you’re concerned about the welfare of a child, as ever you should contact children’s social care immediately.
If you are concerned about risks to an adult or child due to domestic abuse seek advice from your local authority or safeguarding partners who will support the family further. Official government advice for individuals who wish to report domestic abuse is still to call 999 and when prompted dial 55 if the victim is unable to talk.
Finally, make sure you always record information appropriately. This will include keeping factual records of conversations, noting specific concerns accurately and without judgment or opinion. Records should be dated and produced in chronological order, signed and/or countersigned by a significant manager or lead. Information-sharing and record-keeping should be done in line with data protection laws and protocols.
Rachel Buckler is one of 3 co-founders of the Early Years Hub. She holds a number of professional qualifications including the NNEB and a BA Hons in Early Years and Education, and has been working within the early years sector for over 25 years.
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