COVID-19- the Impact on Children and Families
The impact of COVID-19 is far-reaching, with concerns across community and voluntary organisations that it is exacerbating challenges, gaps and inequalities in policy and provision, already hard felt by some of our society's most vulnerable or marginalised.
In this article we explore the impact of the pandemic on children, young people and families across Northern Ireland with Barnardo’s NI, Julia Buchanan, Assistant Director for Policy at the childrens charity.
Tell us a little about your organisation and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your work and key services at this time?
As the largest children’s charity in Northern Ireland, Barnardo’s NI supports over 12,000 children, young people and families every year. We deliver a wide range of services across NI, from providing family support and early intervention, to working directly with children and families who have experienced adversity and need our support. This includes supporting children and young people who experience the care system; young people who are sexually abused; children who struggle with poor mental health; and refugee or newcomer families.
The current Covid-19 emergency has presented a challenge like no other in Barnardo’s 154 year history, and the children and families we support need us now more than ever. Our staff and volunteers are working tirelessly to ensure the most vulnerable children are getting the support they need and that they are getting it quickly - whether that is a delivery of groceries and essentials, a regular digital counselling session, or protected face-to-face interventions where necessary.
Although we have taken the decision to close some of our buildings in line with public health guidance, we have not stopped delivering services and we continue to support children, young people and families across Northern Ireland. Our 40+ services are using creative methods to ensure sustained support to our service users, using digital technology to maintain contact with young people, providing pre-recorded resources for families to use at home, or adapting our residential homes to comply with social distancing and PPE requirements.
Like many charities, we are also experiencing the financial impact of Covid-19 and we are taking measures to protect jobs and the longer-term sustainability of the charity across the UK. We also have concerns about further financial impacts for the sector still to come after the immediate crisis. Charities are critical to supporting the vulnerable in society and the demand is already increasing; we need to ensure financial sustainability in the sector to respond to both the current need and to the likely increased post-pandemic future need.
What are your key concerns as regards the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the children, young people and families, you work with and on behalf of?
The Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on our society, affecting how we lead our everyday lives. However, whilst putting systems in place to address the threat of coronavirus, safeguards that normally protect vulnerable children and young people could inadvertently be breached. Our policy briefing highlights how we need to ensure that those protections are preserved, even more so in times of crisis.
We are concerned that child protection issues are not being identified and referred to the appropriate agencies, in the absence of the usual support systems such as schools and other face-to-face engagement. Based on our service data from recent years, we usually see an increase of safeguarding issues just before or during periods of schools closures such as summer holidays, with particular increases in our early intervention and drug or alcohol misuse services. We know that there has been an increase in domestic abuse calls to police and helplines during lockdown; and too often, children and young people are the hidden victims of domestic abuse. In addition, increased online traffic may pose an increased risk of digital dangers including grooming and sexual exploitation, indicating a need to promote online safety and to support parents and carers to navigate digital safety. More families are being pushed into crisis and the most vulnerable children are in the greatest danger as vital support systems diminish.
Mental Health Impacts
The long lasting impact of this crisis may be seen for years to come and it is vital we can sustain the support needed for children and young people both during and after the pandemic, particularly in areas like mental health and wellbeing, where the effects of the current situation may not be seen immediately. It is important that we recognise the impact of the crisis and of the public discourse on the mental health and anxiety of young people, and the impact that can have on their long term wellbeing. Social distancing measures can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation, leading to chronic loneliness which can impact on long term mental and physical health and wellbeing. We need to make sure that access to mental health support continues throughout this period, and that there is recognition of the particular vulnerability of certain groups – for example, young carers, children in or leaving care, children with disabilities or complex needs, and newcomer and refugee families with limited family or social networks.
We’re also concerned that many families have been pulled into poverty as a result of losing their jobs, businesses or increased financial pressures during this time. Children are already at a higher risk of poverty than the general population: experiencing poverty can cause stress and worry for a child, which can have a negative impact on their development. The added dimension of ‘digital poverty’ is also a concern, given the reliance on digital devices for children and young people to access education as well as maintain friendships throughout this period, and yet not every family will have access to the equipment needed
The important thing to remember, though, is that children and young people are not a homogenous group, and this crisis will impact every family differently. We need to make sure that the various needs of every child are recognised so that vulnerable children and young people are not forgotten in developing the response to the pandemic.
In light of these, what are your key asks for government and other senior decision makers at this time?
We have been working with government and political stakeholders throughout this crisis to highlight our concerns for children, young people and families, and welcome the engagement so far and the commitment to recognising the impact of Coronavirus on children, young people and families. We urge the NI Executive to build on this and to continue engaging with the sector, to ensure children are not forgotten in this crisis.
Our Key asks include:
- Child protection and safeguarding must be prioritised. In recognition of the increased risks during lockdown, we need to avoid revised safeguarding thresholds, which may leave at-risk families without the vital support they need including early intervention or prevention support. With fewer social supports and opportunities to identify risk, timely effective intervention is essential.
- Mental health support and access to counselling must continue throughout this crisis and afterwards, with particular supports made available to vulnerable groups, in recognition of the impact of loneliness during isolation and the impact of existing trauma, which may be exacerbated during lockdown.
- Support should be available to families that have been pulled into poverty as a result of the pandemic, as well as to families who are already experiencing poverty.
- The pandemic is a threat to the existence of charities. Funding security, including longer-term commissioning, is needed to ensure the vital services delivered by the third sector can continue to address the legacy of the pandemic in years to come.
Huge thanks to Julia for taking the time to highlight these important issues. For further queries regarding any of the key issues raised, please contact Julia Buchanan, Assistant Director, Policy [email protected]
Barnardos NI are members of NICVA's Public Affairs Forum. Via our Public Affairs Forum we continue to support community and voluntary organisations in amplifying their experiences and messaging to government and others at this time. This forum brings together those working in policy and public affairs across the voluntary and community sector to share information and insight and to discuss key issues in policy and policy development.
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The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.
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