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While calls for help about child abuse increase, 600,000 vulnerable children remain invisible to the state

NSPCC data suggests that domestic violence involving children has got worse in lockdowns | PA Images

4 min read

Data shows an increase in calls about domestic abuse in the pandemic. However, with the number of referrals to social services going down, children are being forgotten when they need us most.

Domestic abuse is the most common reason why children are referred to help from social workers – over half of the children’s social care assessments last year identified domestic abuse as an issue. Living with domestic abuse is terrifying for a child. Not only does it put them in immediate danger, but it can also have more long-term effects on their mental health and well-being. It is therefore essential that all children who experience this abuse are given the protection and support that they need.

For this to happen the first step is to identify children experiencing domestic abuse. Even before the pandemic, I was worried about the number of children who are vulnerable but ‘invisible’ to the state– those living in frightening circumstances at home, without any help from social workers. Although official figures show 174,000 children were identified by social workers as living with domestic abuse, my office estimates that there were many more – as many as 789,000 children in this situation but who had not been identified by the system. This means hundreds of thousands of children potentially going without vital services.

The combination of rising levels of abuse and a fall in referrals will increase the numbers of ‘invisible children’

All the indicators, including the latest data from the NSPCC about calls to their helpline, suggests that domestic abuse is likely to have got even worse during lockdowns. And yet, instead of a surge of referrals to children’s services to reflect this increased need, referrals are in fact down on previous years. The combination of rising levels of abuse and a fall in referrals will increase the numbers of ‘invisible children’. It is absolutely right that children who are already identified as vulnerable are getting additional help, for example being entitled to a school place, or prioritised for health visitor checks. However, this ‘invisible’ group of children are under the radar, not in school and without any of those protections in place.

We need to see all councils provided with additional resources to proactively seek out those children whose home lives have, for whatever reason, worsened during the pandemic.

Once these children are identified, they must be guaranteed help. Some of this will come directly from social workers, although specialist services for victims and their children are also essential.

The Domestic Abuse Bill is a landmark piece of legislation and has already made one crucial breakthrough – in the definition of domestic abuse it acknowledges for the first time that children, far from being passive bystanders to abuse in their own homes, are direct victims. The next step is for this Bill to make sure that every child can actually get the help that they need. As it stands the Bill sets out a legal duty for sufficient refuge accommodation to be available to all victims of domestic abuse, and their children. But this risks squeezing out essential community support. Families who are still living in abusive relationships, those who are not able to access refuges, and those who are in need of help to recover at home, all rely on these community services. The Bill must include an additional legal duty for the provision of community support.

I want this provision to be extended to all victims, including migrant victims, and their children. It also means that teenagers who are experiencing abuse from a partner must be able to get help – as must any child who is displaying abusive behaviour.

Stopping abusive behaviours early on and supporting children to have healthy and safe relationships in the future, could be a profound legacy for this Bill.

The Covid crisis has at least sparked a much-needed national conversation about vulnerable children. If we are to truly ‘Build Back Better’, then we need an ambitious plan to help children recover in the wake of this pandemic, with a focus on those vulnerable children who too easily fall between the gaps in support.


Anne Longfield is Children’s Commissioner for England

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Read the most recent article written by Anne Longfield - The government must crack down on growing county lines child exploitation

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