Scroll down to find out more on how vulnerable children and young people were affected by Covid.
Whilst the majority of children will have to wait until September to return to school on a part-time basis we must remember that “vulnerable children” and those of key workers are still able to attend. Currently 400 schools or clusters have been opened every day for the children of key workers or those deemed to be vulnerable, less than 1200 have actually been attending. It is important we encourage those children who need to attend school to do so, and we all have a role to play in this. Northern Ireland has a vibrant community and voluntary sector who, alongside social care agencies, continue to engage with families in a variety of ways. They and schools must continue to encourage children and young people who qualify to attend school if there is one open in their local area.
I am pleased that the Education Authority and the Health and Social Care Trusts are working together to identify those children who may need the most support. This is exactly the type of joined up working that we need to see more generally, and particularly at this time, when it is so easy for vulnerable children and young people to fall through the cracks and be forgotten.
I wish to, again, add my voice to the critical message that our child protection and social care systems are open. This crisis has put enormous strain on families and I therefore find it deeply concerning that referrals are low. We must continue to be mindful that home is unfortunately not always a safe place for some children, making the lockdown even more difficult. Families affected by domestic violence, alcohol and substance misuse, mental health issues, bereavement or other issues cannot be left alone and isolated. They need to be supported like never before to help them safety through lockdown and beyond to whatever becomes the ‘new normal’.
My office has been engaging with the DoH and the Health and Social Care services. They have ensured that these essential services are open and social workers and their social care colleagues are continuing to engage with families maintaining home visits where necessary. I am pleased that the recruitment of newly qualified social workers was accelerated in some trusts and they have already begun their new careers. It is important that relevant authorities continue to have direct contact with children by continuing to review the services they are receiving, taking particular account of the impact of the crisis on children’s access to support, services and friendship networks.
As with education the message is clear – services are open for children and families who need them, please contact them if you need to. It is also important to remember the vital role that organisations and groups in the voluntary and community sectors are playing in keeping people safe. Keeping children and young people safe is a collective responsibility and depends on effective partnerships across different sectors, departments and agencies and on ongoing engagement with our communities.