Adult Social Service and Childcare Lawyers are a rare and precious find, with Local Authority’s country-wide reporting that recruitment and retention of the same is a near-constant difficulty.
It is, however, a self-fulfilling prophecy, that the more there is a shortage, the higher the caseloads are and so is the burnout of lawyers. When burnout hits retention of those recruited reduce and the cycle continues.
Covid-19 and the respective lockdowns has caused a sharp rise in the number of public law applications being placed before the Court, add to this that sickness and self-isolation has reduced the availability of social worker to manage cases on the ground, and you have the perfect storm.
We must then consider the difficulties faced by the courts in managing public law matters remotely, along with acknowledging that the judiciary are sometimes advancing in age. Whilst District Judges and Recorders are often younger, their counterpart on the circuits and in higher courts are, by definition later in their career and so the likely impact of Covid-19 if contracted all the greater.
We have found our older and more vulnerable residents isolated at home, reliant on family, friends, and volunteer services to provide their day-to-day necessities. Whilst food and medication can be dropped at the door, what of the social aspect, how are these individuals to receive human interaction. The days of talking to the milkman were long gone, the days of seeing the butcher for a slice of ham for lunch – gone.
Who would know if these individuals were sick, depressed, or, in the worst of circumstances deceased? How long until someone noticed, how long until someone checked. The fear of this causes those with the strongest mind to panic, to feel they no longer matter. Family members do all they can, they offer the support they can, but often those family members have children being homeschooled and working commitments to contend with.
The news channels report that elderly care home residents are dying of loneliness, with dementia patients not understanding what is going on, and thus feeling abandoned by their families. But to the darker side, what of those older people who are being mistreated by their caregivers, their bank accounts depleted, and violence perpetrated on them daily. Sometimes there is no one to check they are ok. There is concern amongst social care professionals that when this pandemic is finally over, the ramifications of the same will be long felt globally.
In a report commissioned by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel , it was reported that there has been a significant increase in the serious incident notifications, with 285 serious incident notifications between April and September 2020.
In essence, this is an increase in the ‘near misses’ caused by the pandemic. Public law safeguarding cases saw a median increase of 27% from the same period in 2019/2020, and as such, the impact of Covid-19 is demonstrative of a system at a breaking point. Serious incidents in respect of children under the age of one increased by some 30%, with a similar increase being noted in the age range of 16 years and over.
What is more notable is that there was a 33% increase in deaths of children in the same period being reported. It is mooted that the causation could be the increased pressure on families caused by the respective ‘lockdowns’ and the increased spent in familial isolation without the safeguards of education and in-person social care oversight. In addition, families have been left to cope with economic uncertainty, reduction in state intervention, and stressors caused by educating at home with minimal oversight by educational professionals.
Refuge UK have reported that Domestic violence calls were up by 25%, from the same period the year before. Inevitably many of these incidents will have been witnessed by children in the respective households, and as such there has been a greater risk of injury to children who have not only witnessed domestic violence but may have been at risk of getting caught in the crossfire.
It is also well documented that the inevitable reduction in social care staffing, usually caused by self-isolation, infection with Coronavirus, and the reliance on digital visits, has caused a deterioration in home conditions and support available to families.
The sad reality is that every time a social worker visits a family, their own family is at risk of contracting the virus. Vulnerable people and people with addictions may be less likely to follow the government guidance, thus every time a social worker goes to those homes, they are putting the families they visit, the next family, their mum, dad, and children at risk of contracting the virus
Another factor which must be considered is that of education. Since March 2020, to a greater or lesser degree, children have remained at home. Trapped away from the only safeguard vulnerable children may know. No more hot meal at lunch, no access to the teaching assistant who knows when a child hasn’t slept due to abuse in the home. No teachers to check that the reading book has been done, and nobody to see the hunger and the bruises caused at home.
Teaching unions have mooted that their staff have been put at risk of contracting the disease, that schools have not received the support and assistance needed to protect the next generation, and yet there remains little government assistance. The difficulty is that closing the schools reduces the infection rate but reduces the life chances of those children in the lower economic demographic.
The children at home with no WIFI, no access to a laptop or a tablet simply don’t have access to the means of homeschooling. The universal credit amount for a single mother with 2 children is approx. £926.97 per month, this must pay for rent, food, clothing, utilities, and all the family needs.
Many families are on the poverty line claiming Universal Credit, and to expect them to pay in excess of £30 per month for enough data for children to access virtual classrooms is simply not achievable for most. The simple truth is that the safety net of school has not been available to the families who rely on and need their support.
Children unfortunately are being failed by a system at breaking point, and when this government has made policy recommendations, they have done so without considering the ramifications on the future generations.
The simple truth is that a system that should offer universal opportunities to all children, has failed quite catastrophically. Social care professionals, lawyers, and the Courts are working hard to keep children safe, however, without the eyes on the ground, the simple truth is that the system falls down, because no matter how hard the system works, teachers and education providers see children for 6 hours a day, 39 weeks a year. Until our children are back in the classroom a risk to them will remain.
With all that in mind, I spoke with Sara Reid a Locum at Shropshire Council, as she is someone who is in the thick of things, I wanted to know her outlook on the current situation.
"There have been benefits to the pandemic, namely that the Courts have become more organised with timeslots being given as to when matters will be heard. The wasted morning spent at court awaiting your matter being called has long gone, and as such, I feel I achieve more in a day.
A negative of the current system, if those private firms have seen fit to bombard local authorities with applications to the court for non-compliance with court directions. Where usually these issues would be discussed generally and agreed between the advocates, now there seems to be a culture of applications being made and extraneous emails being sent chasing papers and assessments which matter little if a few days delayed.
I believe that social workers are doing their best in difficult circumstances and there appears to be little recognition by the private solicitors of the risks social workers take daily when visiting families. Whilst it is acknowledged that there are statutory requirements and standards which must be followed, there is increasing, and unnecessary pressure being put upon social workers to engage in risks that those seeking the directions would not be prepared to engage in themselves.
Further, when social workers must self-isolate due to them visiting families who are infected, there is little recognition that they have children at home who also need caring for. The simple truth is that social workers are at breaking point, and without urgent support, they are likely to become unwell and unable to meet the requirements of the Courts, and thus families are placed at an increased risk due to staff shortages."
In conclusion, whether it is adult or children’s social care, this pandemic has caused a nation of failed individuals. It must not be forgotten that we have a duty to protect the vulnerable and that if this government doesn’t invest in services, we will still be feeling the effects of the pandemic in the future.
Additional funding is required to employ the best social workers, the crème-de-la-crème of legal professionals. In reality, services cost more to manage because there is a reliance on professionals who feel that local authority work is a vocation, rather than operating local authorities as a business. A change is needed, and unless these changes happen soon, the whole system will implode, with the victims being the most vulnerable.