Charity frontline staff reveal parents and children at breaking point in 'dossier of despair'
Action for Children key workers warn families at rock bottom, fearing worse to come in childhood crisis
- Survey of charity’s frontline staff finds parents and children at breaking point – some suicidal – as families struggle to put food on the table, heat homes, afford bills – with some isolated new mums saying they wish they hadn’t had their babies this year.
- With levels of domestic abuse rising in lockdown, workers fear many children are trapped at home, hidden from help.
- Key workers call on Prime Minister to ‘come live and breathe what our families are going through’, warning children of all ages regressing in speech, behaviour, education and social skills.
- Ahead of the Budget, Action for Children calls for Universal Credit uplift to be made permanent as its new analysis shows anything less will leave struggling families without support when they need it most.
After almost a year of unprecedented restrictions on family life, a new investigation by Action for Children reveals the UK’s most vulnerable children and parents are at rock bottom – as the charity pleads with the Prime Minister to tackle the country’s childhood crisis. Action for Children carried out interviews with key workers representing 155 of its frontline services (1) across the UK, including children’s centres, services for disabled children and young carers. The findings show huge concern about the mental health, finances and safeguarding of families they support, as well as fears for their future.
All staff were worried about the toll the crisis is having on parents’ mental health (2), describing them as “at their wits' end”, “exhausted”, and “unable to cope with a simmering pot of emotion and frustrations”. As well as being cut off from friends and family, many were reported to be struggling to cope with job losses, relationship breakdowns, home schooling and fears of catching the virus. One described working with a parent who was suicidal: “She told me ‘I can’t cope, I can’t be here anymore" – she’s a single parent with an older child with autism and additional needs. She can’t access school for long at the moment and is so alone, it’s just so sad”. Another reported new mums left isolated without support networks tell her “they wish they hadn’t had their babies [this year].” Anxiety was reported as one of the main issues facing children and young people (3) – with workers describing how many told them they are anxious to go outside, of bringing the virus home to their families, and of returning to school after being isolated from friends. Another described an extreme case of a disabled child under 10 who talked about suicide because of the pressure: “[They] didn’t want to live. We’ve arranged a long-term plan but what could have happened to them? This was a parent we never met, they just called us.”
Nearly all (93%) of the charity’s frontline staff said families’ finances had deteriorated since the first lockdown (4) and a similar number (90%) reported parents were worried about having enough money to stay afloat both now and in the coming months (5). Families were reported being most worried about not being able to afford food (93%), followed by heating (66%), then household bills (61%). These were followed by technology (56%) and clothes (41%) (6). More than half (58%) said they did not think Government was providing adequate financial support to low-income families (7). One key worker said: “So many more families are out of work and with the children at home there’s the increase in costs. Families can't afford warm clothes for children, we’ve spent emergency funds on beds for children sleeping on the floor [and] these are not the most vulnerable in society, they are newly in need because of the pandemic.” Another said: “Families who were buying extra things in their weekly shop to contribute to a foodbank are now relying on foodbanks themselves”.
With many schools and services still closed – and lockdown restrictions causing a rise in domestic abuse (8) – many workers were concerned about the safety of at-risk children, hidden from professionals such as teachers and doctors who would normally see them. Three-quarters (76%) of workers fear there are children who are not being reached by external agencies because of the pandemic (9). And more than half of workers (56%) said they have seen an increase in vulnerable children needing support (10). One said: “Safeguarding issues go under the radar… we don’t see the signs and symptoms when we work virtually… you miss the water cooler moments, those observations". Another described the difficulty in proving neglect of a child without observations: “The parents will just say ‘yes, everything is ok’. It takes a village to raise a child, and the village is missing”.
Long term impact
The overwhelming majority (80%) (11) of those surveyed considered childhood to be in crisis and that the pandemic will have a negative impact on children unless there was urgent investment in children’s services and support back into education. Many have witnessed children of all ages regress in speech, behaviour, education and social skills, with one worker echoing many: “We'll be in a desperate situation and it’ll take years to catch up – they’ll be a lost generation.” One called on the Prime Minister to “come live and breathe what our families are going through” and another for him to “take 24 hours out of your life and live how these parents have lived for the last year. In these tiny flats with no food and no gardens and five children”.
New Universal Credit analysis
“It’s been nearly a year since the first lockdown began – 12 long months of more families facing hardship, struggling to cope and of childhoods gone.“ Sadly, in what’s become a dossier of despair, our frontline staff tell us children and parents are at rock bottom going without food, heating, clothes and essentials - and the pandemic is making things even worse. With unemployment rising and fears for the future when the furlough scheme ends, more families are facing financial hardship and vulnerable children are paying the price.“There is no faster way to push up poverty than by taking over £1,000 a year out of the pockets of the poorest families in the country. Many of these families are working families doing their best to hold their heads above water after a nightmare year that has seen hours cut and wage packets slashed. The Prime Minister must make the uplift to Universal Credit permanent if families are to stand a fighting chance of recovery.”
Action for Children’s director of policy and campaigns, Imran Hussain, said:
“It’s been nearly a year since the first lockdown began – 12 long months of more families facing hardship, struggling to cope and of childhoods gone.“ Sadly, in what’s become a dossier of despair, our frontline staff tell us children and parents are at rock bottom going without food, heating, clothes and essentials - and the pandemic is making things even worse. With unemployment rising and fears for the future when the furlough scheme ends, more families are facing financial hardship and vulnerable children are paying the price.“ There is no faster way to push up poverty than by taking over £1,000 a year out of the pockets of the poorest families in the country. Many of these families are working families doing their best to hold their heads above water after a nightmare year that has seen hours cut and wage packets slashed. The Prime Minister must make the uplift to Universal Credit permanent if families are to stand a fighting chance of recovery.”
To support Action for Children’s End Childhood Crisis campaign and help its key workers deliver life-changing support for children and families go to actionforchildren.org.uk/endcrisis
Notes to editor
Snapshot of further findings:
- “Many families who need help won’t take it for fear of the virus.”
- “Recently we've had parents who can't feed themselves, they’ve no money or electricity or rent, no luxuries and nothing but essentials for the kids.”
- “They are so fed up of it - any element of joy of spending time together has gone.”
- “A year is a long time in a child’s life. There has been a lot of that uncertainty and insecurity and young people are anxious around what is going to happen [and] will take that into their future adult life … which will impact on their relationships, education and careers.”
- “Parents self-esteem and mental health is poor because they feel they can’t provide for their children. Other thing is parents juggling work and home schooling. Parents want the best for their children but they aren’t qualified teachers, despite the best efforts of our schools, it doesn’t replace the school setting. The calls we’re getting into our family support service indicates that parents are really struggling.”
- “There has been a sustained and concerted effort to support families. Food parcels aren’t a long term solution though.”
- “We’ve seen an increase in instances of self-harm and attempted suicides amongst the most vulnerable.”
- “There's been so much regression in children with additional needs - behaviours such as head banging and self- harm, scratching themselves.”
- Action for Children conducted telephone and video call interviews with 41 frontline service workers from across the UK representing 155 of its services between Monday 8 and Wednesday 10 February 2021.
- 100% of the 41 workers replied that families they support were suffering from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and sadness.
- 20 workers reported children having anxious feelings and/or experiencing anxiety.
- In answer to the question: ‘Generally speaking, have families’ finances deteriorated since the first lockdown?' Yes/No: 38 said yes (93%), 1 said no (2%) and 2 didn’t answer (5%).
- In answer to the question: ‘Are you speaking to parents who are worried about having enough money to stay afloat both now and in the coming months?' Yes/No: 37 said yes (90%), 2 said no (5%), and 2 didn't answer (5%).
- In answer to the question: ‘Thinking about parents with financial worries, what are they worried about being able to afford? Food, tech, bills, heating, clothes, other’: Food - 38 (93%), Tech - 23 (56%), Bills - 25 (61%), Heating - 27 (66%), Clothes - 17 (41%), Other - 13 (31%), Didn't answer - 1 (2%).
- In answer to the question: ‘Based on your experiences of supporting families during the pandemic, do you feel the UK Government is providing adequate financial support to low-income parents/carers/children?' Yes/No?: 8 said yes (19%), 24 said no (58%), 2 said unsure (5%), 7 didn't answer (17%).
- In the first seven weeks of lockdown, every 30 seconds there was a call to the Police about domestic abuse (joint Panorama and Women’s Aid investigation): Domestic abuse surged in lockdown, Panorama investigation finds | Domestic violence | The Guardian. A Perfect Storm (Women’s Aid): Domestic abuse has got worse during lockdown (women reported that the abuse they experienced got worse during the pandemic). Lockdown restrictions and the fear of spreading Covid-19 made it more difficult for women to seek support/leave their abuser during lockdown (over three-quarters of survivors surveyed living with the perpetrator said they could not leave or get away because of the pandemic). Half of the survivors surveyed with children who were currently experiencing abuse said their children had witnessed more abuse towards them. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw lockdown surge: In June 2020, calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual (Refuge): Coronavirus: Domestic abuse helpline sees lockdown surge - BBC News
- In answer to the question: ‘Are there families and children you fear are not being supported/reached by external agencies, as a result of the pandemic (such as health, education, and social care)?' Yes/No?: 31 said yes (76%), 4 said no (10%), 6 didn't answer (14%).
- In answer to the question: 'Have you seen an increase in what you would define as vulnerable children?' Yes/No?: 23 said yes (56%), 10 said no (24%), 1 said unsure (2%), 7 didn't answer (17%).
- In answer to the question: ‘Do you consider ‘childhood’ being in crisis at this moment in time?' (By ‘crisis’ we mean a time of difficulty and suffering)' Yes/No?: 33 said yes (80%), 2 said no (5%), 1 said unsure (2%), 5 didn't answer (12%).