Scotland's child abuse victims must never be invisible again – Joanna Barrett

After a surge in referrals of NSPCC Scotland’s Childline calls to the police during lockdown, we must work to become a country that values, respects and cherishes every child, says Joanna Barrett
If stricter social-distancing measures need to be imposed in the future, we must ensure that better protections are in place for the most vulnerable, says Joanna Barrett (Picture: John Devlin)If stricter social-distancing measures need to be imposed in the future, we must ensure that better protections are in place for the most vulnerable, says Joanna Barrett (Picture: John Devlin)
If stricter social-distancing measures need to be imposed in the future, we must ensure that better protections are in place for the most vulnerable, says Joanna Barrett (Picture: John Devlin)

This month, propelled by the Scottish Government setting out its programme for the year ahead, we embark on the country’s journey towards healing and much-needed recovery.

The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for so many people and it has exposed weaknesses in our systems supporting the most vulnerable in society. We are deeply concerned about the impact the crisis has had on vulnerable children, as we know it has exacerbated the risks of abuse and neglect for many.

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In March, schools and nurseries closed for most children and our approaches to child protection transformed overnight; the young were hidden away behind closed doors, becoming invisible to many services – a devastating situation for those for whom home is not always a safe place.

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Amid lockdown, we saw families who had barely been coping before Covid-19 being pushed to crisis point. Our staff supported parents caring for children around the clock, including those with additional needs, while struggling with mental health issues, substance misuse, domestic abuse and poverty.

Our Childline service saw an increase in children and young people getting in touch about their mental and emotional health, many telling us about physical and sexual abuse at home. Some children talked to our counsellors about feeling extremely lonely, particularly if they were spending most of their time at home with someone who was abusing them.

The number of referrals by our helpline about children at risk made to Police Scotland and other Scottish agencies increased consistently in the months following the start of lockdown; with the average monthly number of referrals, after stay-at-home rules were issued, being more than 50 per cent higher than in the months prior to this. The main reasons that children were referred were because of parental behaviour, physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

Children not only faced an increased risk in the home during lockdown but also online; the greater amount of time they were spending on digital devices gave those looking to exploit children an unprecedented opportunity. Police Scotland recorded a higher number of online sexual abuse crimes against children in June than in any other month on record.

We know that experiencing any kind of abuse can have long-lasting psychological effects on a child. They may go on to develop mental health issues or display challenging behaviour, and it can affect young children’s development.

But evidence shows that, with the right support at the right time, children can recover from such experiences.

And we are encouraged to see the Scottish Government’s commitment, set out in its Programme for Government 2020-21, to build up children’s health and well-being services.

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With most of the country now emerging from lockdown and many children having returned to school, we anticipate that the experiences of young people during this unprecedented time will increasingly come to light. It is, therefore, imperative that schools are equipped to recognise and respond sensitively to children who have endured adverse experiences. And we believe the new “mental health training and learning resource for all school staff”, the Government has pledged to create and deliver, should include information on child development and how trauma can manifest in behavioural problems or poor emotional regulation.

The Scottish Government’s promise to ensure that all children and young people “are clearly and quickly signposted to the right help and support where it’s needed” is also heartening.

However, it is crucial this is also accompanied by investment in specialist, relevant and timely treatment and support for those who have suffered traumatic experiences such as abuse and neglect.

It is vital the Government recognises this is not about getting back to the position we were in before the coronavirus crisis – we need to go much further; too many children struggle to access mental health support. And our research shows patchy provision of therapeutic services for children who have suffered abuse across the country.

While it is important we focus on looking forward, the threat of the virus is still very much a reality, and it is crucial the hardship of recent months is not wasted. If stricter social-distancing measures need to be imposed in the future, whether it’s to individual regions or to the whole country, we must ensure that better protections are in place for the most vulnerable. We cannot forsake our children and allow them to become invisible once again.

In the longer term, it is so important that we invest in identifying need and providing early preventative support for families facing a range of adversities. We know that supporting vulnerable parents to overcome their own difficulties, often stemming from their own early experiences, helps them become more emotionally available for their young child. And, so, it is good to hear the First Minister reinforce her commitment to delivering on the recommendations of the Independent Care Review, with a £4 million fund for early intervention and family support.

We recognise that bringing about recovery for Scotland’s children is a significant task. But we have begun with a bright vision. The introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill last week marked a monumental day for the country. This is a significant step to ensuring that all children, even babies, in the country have their rights – including those relating to fair and equal treatment and being protected from abuse – recognised, respected and fulfilled. It sets out clearly that our vision is for Scotland to be a country that values, respects and cherishes every child.

Joanna Barrett is NSPCC Scotland policy and public affairs manager

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