“One thing I think the coronavirus has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.”
So said the Prime Minister from his self-isolation earlier this week, reminding us of the still controversial Margaret Thatcher quote about the nature of communities and the state.
I agree with the Prime Minister that this crisis has shown some of the best of our civil society, that it reinforces the need for us to stick together as a nation, and also reminds us of the importance of looking out for and protecting the most vulnerable. After all, the lockdown is primarily a device to protect the vulnerable from a dangerous virus.
During these unprecedented times, we need to look out for vulnerable children too. It is undeniable that there is a group of children who are left out of the nation’s progress. They fall out of school, they have lower life chances and often poorer health. These children are too often the invisible secret in our society.
We are a prosperous country where there is opportunity for many and where most children grow up living happy and healthy lives. But we are also a country where thousands of very vulnerable kids fall through the gaps in the system, where there is exploitation by criminals or abusers, and where families are surviving hand to mouth in poverty, relying on foodbanks to feed the kids.
Where those children are already falling through the gaps, we have usually relied on schools to be a safety net – a place not only to keep children out of harm, but also where teachers can spot problems and alert others. When those schools close, or where they are not able to offer, for whatever reason, the same level of support for vulnerable children, it exposes many of the weaknesses in the system I have been talking about as Children’s Commissioner over recent years.
That’s why the Government’s decision to keep schools open for vulnerable kids was so welcome, and a sign too that many in government do understand the risks facing vulnerable children. But it seems from anecdotal evidence that many of these children who we want to keep safe in school are not – as yet – showing up. And if they’re not showing up, that means they’re most likely at home, which can mean exposure to that cocktail of secondary risks – lack of food in the house, cramped living conditions or neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse and parental mental health problems. At a time of unprecedented pressure on staffing, the emergency demands new and agile approaches from every one of us.
And this country has already shown that it cares. As a society, we have come together to protect the vulnerable elderly and the sick. The hundreds of thousands of NHS volunteers shows the willing is there. I want that willing to now be extended to include vulnerable children. It is time to mobilise and redeploy an army of people who can help – the thousands of people who already have the necessary checks and vetting required to work with children – from furloughed nursery staff to charity workers, dinner ladies, sports coaches, teaching assistants, Scouts and Guide leaders.
We need an army of these volunteers for our vulnerable kids – people who are able to help social services and schools to reach to children and families, check in on what is going on, support struggling families and make these invisible children visible again.
And there is something for all of us here. Just as we are offering to support our older neighbours by dropping round some shopping, we should also look out for the struggling single mum who might need similar help. If we see evidence of a family that is struggling, we should let the local council know to see what support they could provide. And police forces are still getting the message out there to ring 999 if you are really worried about someone’s safety.
There are 830,000 children in this country who have experienced domestic abuse in the last year, and it is the most common reason for children to be referred to children’s services. As in previous crises, rates of domestic abuse are increasing during the current lockdown. France and Australia have already reported huge increases in calls about domestic abuse, and our police are seeing the same patterns here. Self-isolation and social distancing rules play into the hands of those who perpetrate coercive control and already limit their victim’s movements. At the same time, many of the routine contacts victims of domestic violence may have had with friends, family or neighbours will have reduced significantly, so fewer people will be able to identify problems.
That’s why it’s so important the public helps by contacting the police if they’re worried about someone’s safety, and why we can ask people working in shops and other essential services how to spot signs and how to help. As well as more support for the charities that can help victims to escape, children living in these frightening homes need to know that someone is looking out for them.
None of this is a charter for curtain-twitchers and busy-bodies. It is a public service. It would show, as the Prime Minister says, that there really is such a thing as society, and it’s a society that cares about vulnerable children.