This article was first published in Holyrood Magazine, 18 May 2020.
The link between poverty, inequality and children who need care and protection is now well-established. As is the case with Kirsty and her mum Caley, the experience of poverty and inequality will damage their health, wellbeing and life chances.
The impact of COVID-19 has thrown into sharp focus the experiences of families who already have social care and protection services involved in their lives. And there is growing concern that many of the existing protective factors that families such as Caley and Kirsty’s had in place have now changed: support from school and health and social care services; access to free school meals; and connections with their wider family and community. The current context will place an additional burden onto a family already under pressure: Caley will be concerned about meeting their basic needs and existing feelings of anxiety and isolation may be increased by a lack of access to the digital means of holding onto her relationships and connections; and Kirsty will be missing her wider family, friends and nursery teachers, and she may be anxious about her safety and worry about those she cares about.
Similarly, concerns are mounting about those families who were ‘just coping’ before the impact of COVID-19; those individuals and families where the current circumstances will exacerbate issues of safety and wellbeing, including the risk of domestic abuse and employment stability. Many will be isolated and currently ‘invisible’ from services who are unable to reach them to ascertain what their needs might be and provide help.
We all know that these are unprecedented times, times that necessarily drive us all to not only respond to the needs of our communities now, but to consider how we do things differently when we come out of this crisis. There have been very welcome calls to identify, interrogate and evaluate innovations and changes in support and services that have arisen in direct response to COVID-19 that might work better for some children, young people and families: what new or different solutions can be part of the ‘new normal’?
That said, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the evidence about what children and families want and need in terms of support are already well documented and remain unchanged. Caley and Kirsty’s experiences and life chances were not caused by this virus. These existed before, and will be here long after, unless we really do transform the support families can draw on. Much of that which could help Caley and Kirsty to thrive aligns with the foundations of Scotland’s Independent Care Review’s conclusions and the commitment of The Promise.
We have the principles to keep in mind as we chart a roadmap. Families want to know that if they need support, this can be easily accessed, and at an early stage before problems accelerate. Families want access to practical support (such as access to food or money) as well as support for wellbeing, and value support that allows parents and families to support each other first and foremost in their own communities and across universal services. They need choices about what support is offered, with a range of options that best fit their needs. And crucially, we need to ensure that their voices, experiences and strengths are valued and integrated into the help provided.
Now, more than ever, we can see that while change is often hard, it is possible. But in order to change outcomes for Kirsty, Caley, and the thousands of children and parents like them, it will take concerted collaborative effort, knowledge, skill, resource and tenacity to achieve the redesign and reshaping of services and support that are necessary.
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