Last reviewed 26 March 2021

The pandemic has increased the risk of serious harm to young children and has highlighted the need for urgent reform of child protection in the early years, according to new research by the Nuffield Foundation.

The research reveals that incidents of serious harm to children under five where abuse or neglect is known or suspected increased during the early months of the pandemic, and many other children at risk may have been missed due to disruption in the usual pathways for referring children to services.

Government data highlights that incidents involving the death or serious harm of children under five where abuse or neglect is known or suspected increased by 27% in April to September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. It is also estimated that there are more than half a million children aged under five (17%) living in a household with domestic abuse, parental mental health problems or parental substance misuse.

The Nuffield Foundation’s research, Protecting young children at risk of abuse and neglect, reveals that in some areas of England up to 50% of health visitors were redeployed during the first 2020 lockdown, with just one in ten parents of children under two seeing a health visitor face to face. The report warns that the effect of the pandemic on England’s youngest children has been exacerbated by years of cuts to local authority services despite an increasing proportion of young children having been subject to child welfare interventions over the last 10 to 15 years.

The review calls for urgent re-evaluation of the current system, with a focus on how public services and agencies can adopt a holistic and collaborative approach to support young children at risk of abuse and neglect, prevent harm, and promote positive outcomes.

Carey Oppenheim, co-author of the review and early childhood lead at the Nuffield Foundation said:

“Over time, we have seen a shift away from provision of early support to help families who are struggling, towards later interventions that are more likely to separate families and which are more expensive to provide. Alongside this, there are young children at risk of abuse and neglect who need help and are not receiving it because they are not known to services. These concerns have been pulled into sharper focus by the pandemic, and its economic consequences are likely to mean more pressure on council budgets and services at exactly the point families need them most.”

“At the same time, we cannot solve all the problems faced by young children through children’s social care services – social work and family justice are only one part of the solution. Poverty remains a significant risk factor for children and alleviating the financial pressure on families would make a difference in enabling young children to thrive, as would a more holistic and collaborative approach across public services and agencies.”