Criminal Care? · 17 Mar 2020
Covid-19 and residential children’s homes
The country is reeling from the implications of the coronavirus pandemic and the rapidly changing edicts from government which, at the time of writing, included directions to avoid non-essential travel and contact. We await the inevitable announcement that schools will close. No one knows how long these measures will go on for.
In amongst the multitude of issues facing government at the moment, we very much hope that serious thought is being given to the plight of children in residential care. Urgent action needs to be taken to minimise so far as possible the implications of the virus and social distancing for this group of children.
The government has published guidance on Covid-19 in residential care, supported living and home care. Understandably, this guidance is very generic and doesn’t cover specific issues that might be affecting children’s homes. Last Thursday, the Children’s Commissioner sent a letter to the Permanent Secretaries for the Department of Education and Ministry of Housing, Local Government and Communities regarding Covid-19 and children in care. She asked about staffing during the crisis, how children in semi-independent accommodation will be kept informed and supported and what guidance will be issued to social workers on statutory visits including for children accommodated out-of-the area.
Urgent thought needs to be given to so many issues before the situation gets even worse. How will staff convey information about the virus to children? How will they ensure children self-isolate, or observe lock-downs, and support them whilst they are doing so? How will they comfort children worried about relatives? What are homes doing to keep children with underlying health problems safe? How will contact with families be maintained? How will homes tap into schools’ home-learning initiatives? How will they support children’s mental health during what will be an incredibly difficult time? There will be many children who are unhappy in their placement and for whom any enforced self-isolation and lockdown will be completely unbearable. Teenagers, for whom social interaction is so vital, will find it incredibly difficult not to be able to see friends and go about their normal activities.
Local authorities and homes need to be thinking about all of this now. There are some relatively simple and practical things they should be putting in place such as making sure homes are stocked with sufficient hygiene products and supplies of food. All children should have access to the internet and a phone so that they can stay in contact with friends and families and access home-learning resources. Homes should be supplied with additional entertainment for children.
There needs to be vigilance about the monitoring of private companies’ actions over the coming months. Many companies will be looking with an extremely worried eye at their bottom lines. Will they expend the extra resources needed to care for children and keep them physically and mentally well and as comfortable as possible during this time? The worry is that they will instead be looking at ways of cutting costs. Government cannot put the onus on local authorities to manage the actions of these companies during the Covid-19 crisis as they have done for the past two decades. The pressures on and difficulties with placements are very likely to worsen and local authorities may rapidly find themselves in an even more disadvantaged bargaining position than usual with the larger providers. If this proves to be the case, government must step in to ensure that everyone is taking responsibility and their share of the financial burden to get children through the next few months as best as we possibly can.
There are obvious implications for children’s emotional well-being and behaviour during this period. We urge homes and the police to be extra understanding and not to criminalise children unnecessarily.