‘We’re waiting to see what they’ve experienced’: the pandemic’s toll on children and young people in care

A recent survey on children and young people in care warns of backlogs in the system and an increase in suspected domestic abuse cases. Paired with a year of disruption to education and development, leaders now fear long-term impacts on children’s lives and wellbeing.

Even prior to the pandemic, around half of care-experienced children and young people had mental health disorders.

When the government ordered the closure of schools, colleges and nurseries in late March 2020, the majority of British children were sent home to parents or family members.

For thousands of children and young people across the UK, however, staying ‘home’ meant a residential care setting, where stretched staff were suddenly faced with supervising remote learning.

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The closure of schools was undoubtedly hard on all children, but for the often-vulnerable children in residential care, explains Trevor Elliott MBE, managing director of a children’s home in south London, this shift was especially difficult.

“A lot of the time [in care] you’re trying to normalise a child’s life”, Trevor said.

“Being in school makes them feel a part of something. The minute you remove them from it, that has an impact.”

Worse still, he recalls, staff and guardians were unable to offer any uncertainty about when schools might return, making motivation for learning difficult to muster.

“The children’s mentality was often ‘what’s the point’, and I don’t blame them, because we couldn’t answer their question. We didn’t know when they would go back.

“Some of them were in Year 11, doing their GCSEs, with no idea what their results were going to be, whether they were just going to be decided by a computer”, he said.

Children and young people, while least affected by Covid in medical terms, have been disproportionately impacted by the policies used to control the pandemic - from job losses to education.

For the often-vulnerable young people in care, and almost half of whom experienced mental health disorders pre-Covid, the consequences have been especially profound.

Without further action, leaders in the sector now fear this already-disadvantaged group could be left behind as the true impact of the pandemic on these young people begins to rear its head.

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Backlogs in the system

Like most other public services, children’s care initially struggled to adapt to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic - with some providers refusing to take new placements in early 2020 due to transmission risk.

Compounding the delays, courts began pausing proceedings, while social workers were forced to switch to new virtual methods of working. Backlogs quickly built up in the system, creating pressures still evident today.

Anecdotal accounts of delays are backed up by the most recent report on vulnerable children and young people in England, which tracks the impact of the pandemic on children’s care through surveys of local authorities.

“A small but growing number of local authorities report that they continue to have higher numbers of open cases and that care proceedings are taking longer to complete”, reads the report, published in April 2021.

The result has been children and young people left in limbo as the system struggles to cope with demand. Planned permanency moves have been paused, while the availability of suitable placements for children has declined as existing placements stretch to cover delayed proceedings.

The financial burden of these delays could prove enormous, with a 2021 research report from The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) estimating the upheaval will cost £995k in external care placements by the end of the year.

Suspected domestic abuse

Less easy to estimate is the impact this upheaval will have on the children who’ve experienced it, with the vulnerable children survey noting an observable “adverse impact” on the wellbeing of children in care.

Though acknowledging the necessity of school closures for safety, Trevor fears children in care have lost more than just a year of education to the pandemic:

He said: “They’ve lost a year of education but, curriculum aside, they’ve lost a year of development - a lot of [children in care] have complex needs, a lot of them are autistic, they’re going to have to have their confidence rebuilt for socialising in large groups.”

For some, the consequences may have been even more severe, with a “common and consistent theme” emerging from the vulnerable children survey an “increase in cases involving suspected domestic abuse”.

“For many kids, school is a safe haven”, Trevor said. “Having school taken away has possibly created a situation where children have been abused or neglected without teachers to pick up on it.”

The impact of this will only just be beginning to show itself, he adds, now that children have returned to school.

“We’re almost having to wait and see what the children have experienced”, he said.

“I would hope the impact isn’t long-term, but children may have been exposed to abuse, neglect or exploitation from gang members [in lockdown],” he added.

Leaving care

"Even for those leaving the care system and stepping into university or work, the pandemic has been a huge blow”, explains Amy Grant, of Become – the national charity for children in care and young care leavers.When students across the country abandoned halls to ride out the pandemic at home, many care-experienced students were forced to stay put, meaning “many have struggled with social isolation”, says Amy, as well as “experiencing significant worries about finances and accommodation - especially over the summer months”.More likely to be in precarious employment without family support networks to fall back on, older children in care and care leavers have “found their plans for future education, training or employment derailed”, says Amy.

With children in care typically attaining and progressing less well than peers due to the “trauma and barriers” they often face, she adds, the pandemic could risk “blighting” their futures if support from the government and educational institutions is not provided.

Beyond’s call joins a chorus of leaders who continue to warn of the impact of the pandemic on children’s care over the past year.

In November 2020, ex-Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield accused the state of being a “bad parent” for failing thousands of vulnerable children in their care.

More recently, Jenny Coles, President of the ADCS, warned in the association’s 2021 report that “unless the national government addresses the wider societal determinants of family distress we cannot make sustained improvements in the lives of children.”

The coming months, she added, will reveal the “true impact” of the pandemic on the lives of children and young people.

It’s a period, says Trevor, in which support is going to be needed “from all angles” to make sure vulnerable children and young people in care don’t slip through the cracks.

“The main thing we’re going to need is patience and understanding”, he said. “And with that, we need to put ourselves in the child’s shoes to see what they need on a day to day basis...there’s so much support that will be required.”