The Scottish education secretary and Scotland’s chief medical officer are warning child abuse could rise during the coronavirus pandemic and that “individuals or groups” could use the pandemic “as an opportunity for criminal and sexual exploitation of children”.
John Swinney and Dr Catherine Calderwood – as well as the chief social work adviser, Iona Colvin, and chief nursing officer, Fiona McQueen – have this week written to a number of bodies including councils, the police and Education Scotland.
They are warning that the new stresses brought about by coronavirus “could be a trigger for abuse and neglect” and have issued supplementary national child protection guidance in response to Covid-19.
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In a letter accompanying the new guidance, they say that due to the closure of schools and social distancing – as well as the need for self-isolation – children will be less visible at the same time as when the professionals who usually work with them are “under acute pressure”.
They also say that “children may be exposed to more risks online”.
However, they say that while agencies will face “many increasing demands in coming months, the protection of children has to remain an overriding priority”.
They write: “We are likely to see a rise in child-protection concerns and child-protection caseloads due to the impacts of the pandemic on families and wider society. New stresses arising from early learning and childcare, school and business closures, family confinement and isolation alongside physical and psychological health impacts, could be a trigger for abuse and neglect.
"High-stress home environments will increase the likelihood of domestic abuse. We must also be alert to signs that individuals or groups are using the pandemic as an opportunity for criminal or sexual exploitation of children. This is occurring at a time when children will be less visible to a range of professionals who are normally engaged with them and when services and practitioners working with children are under acute pressure.”
The letter adds: “We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge at the current time, and would like to reiterate that support is on offer from the Scottish government and national agencies to local areas if needed.”
The guidance states that practitioners should establish how parents with a drug dependency or mental health difficulties are accessing medication and support to "maintain stability". It also says they should ensure updated safety plans are in place for women experiencing domestic abuse; be clear about how parents with a learning disability are receiving advice and consistent support; and provide help for families experiencing poverty to access fresh food for their children.
The guidance highlights that “schools and temporary alternative provision can continue to provide a safe environment for vulnerable children, including those at risk of harm”.
In the wake of the closure of UK schools to the vast majority of students, a charity warned that it was preparing for a spike in public reports of child sexual abuse on the internet.
On Friday, the UK government published guidance on safeguarding during the pandemic, stating that while schools and colleges “will have an effective child protection policy in place” for use during normal operations, “it is likely that the policy will not accurately reflect new arrangements in response to Covid-19”.
The Scottish government letter and full guidance can be read here.