Hackney Town Hall

Child protection enquiries at Hackney Council are at less than half the rate of same period last year even as domestic abuse referrals rise – an issue causing “particular concern” at the Town Hall.

There have been 13 Section 47 enquiries begun in the week ending 24 April, a 55 per cent decrease on the 29 last year.

The children and families service itself has seen a 46 per cent decrease in referrals overall, dropping from 92 at the same point last year to 50 in the year of the coronavirus crisis.

Sarah Wright, head of safeguarding at the Town Hall, attributed the drop largely to a fall in referrals initiated by local schools during lockdown.

Children’s services carry out investigations following Section 47 enquiries, on the basis that there has been a reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives or is found in the area ‘is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm’.

Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble, who leads on education for the borough, said: “We’re concerned but not surprised by the drop in referrals, and councils across the country are reporting a similar picture.

“A significant proportion of the referrals we usually receive come from schools, and with the majority of children spending most of their time at home, they are less visible to professionals.

“However, looking after vulnerable young people is one of the most important things we do, and despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, our staff are continuing to work with children and families.

“We have redeployed staff within the service so that we can do everything in our power to reach the young people who need us, for example by supporting schools to maintain contact with children they may be concerned about, and working alongside colleagues on our coronavirus helpline in case safeguarding issues arise from any calls.

“We expect to see an increase in referrals once children start to return to school and we are planning to ensure we can respond to this.

“In the meantime, we would urge anyone with any concerns about the safety of a child to contact us.”

Wright said that the council is tracking the data on referrals every week, with a parallel increase of 50 per cent in referrals into the council’s domestic abuse intervention service, with such cases coming into children’s social care also going up by between five and 10 per cent.

Additional emergency refuge spaces are understood to have been found by the council to ensure that abuse survivors have a place to go during the crisis.

The figures come as the Town Hall reconfirms its commitment to getting children back to school as soon as possible while ensuring the safety of pupils and staff, with both Bramble and Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville supporting the five tests set by the National Education Union for reopening schools.

The five tests are:

1. Much lower numbers of coronavirus cases than the current levels
2. A national plan for social distancing and appropriate PPE
3. Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff
4. Whole school strategies and protocols where cases appear
5. Protection for the most vulnerable to continue to self-isolate

Most Hackney schools remain open to vulnerable children and those of key workers.

The government has asked for planning to start on reopening schools from 1 June for early years, reception, Years 1, 6, 10 and 12, and children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

As the debate around the 1 June date continues, director of children, adults and community health Anne Canning has stressed how any decision around the “technicalities” of the current circumstances must have the voice of children themselves at its heart.

Canning said: “It’s been really difficult to get the voice of children, which is dear to our hearts, about the impact of this on them and their families, and their concerns about coming back to school and their future life chances.

“It’s important to get our community reengaged with learning for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is that disadvantage gap that people in Hackney have been working tirelessly on for so long.

“Who knows how [the gap] will be impacted by this, and so we’re really carefully thinking about the next stage, when people may or may not be returning to school, to look at imaginative ways to reduce that disadvantage gap and not let this be a gateway to greater inequities.”

The Town Hall is understood to be working in partnership with the local health system and GPs, with an eye towards support for young people when lockdown measures ease with their mental health and any bereavement they have experienced during the crisis.

Ninety-three per cent of the borough’s schools still have children of key workers or who are vulnerable, in attendance.

Annie Gammon, Hackney’s director of education, praising teachers and schools for their “fantastic efforts” in continuing to support parents with home learning, has revealed that, based on feedback provided to the council, around 50 per cent of the borough’s parents would send their children back to school for a 1 June opening in the current circumstances.

Gammon added: “Some schools it’s significantly higher, and some signficantly lower. A lot of individual decisions are being made.

“As we know, the government has set an ambition for opening for a number of year groups on the 1 June, or if you look closely at the wording, it’s from the 1 of June. There’s flexibility built into the government announcements, and it’s clearly become something of an issue to argue about.

“Everybody involved is committed to making sure children get back safely as soon as possible, and that requires the staff to be safe.

“Schools will be well aware that children have had a very turbulent time, and in some cases a time when family members will have been ill and in the worst case have passed away, and schools will be providing both general care and individual opportunities for counselling.”

Gammon added that while local headteachers all have risk assessments for reopening, and that the council had provided a “significant amount” of guidance, the Town Hall is seeking “more clarity in a number of areas” from central government.

The Town Hall has stressed that it will support heads whatever decision they make on the 1 June, with school leaders now discussing with their staff what safety measures would be taken.

The council is also working with special schools to open at a “really gradual, really incremental pace”, according to Cllr Caroline Woodley, who leads on special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) at the Town Hall.

Woodley said that such settings are “walking a tightrope” in the risk assessments they are working up, with both heads and the council sensitive to such issues as pupils with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) being given a chance to adjust to how dramatically life has changed during the crisis.

Gammon said: “We’ve been clear that heads will take that decision [on reopening], but they will take it in a way that fits into the school – the demographic, how many teachers could come back if they are shielding, the fact they’ve got to manage vulnerable children and key workers’ children as well as setting work for children at home.

“It’s a complex situation and a challenging time for everybody. I think our heads are doing great work thinking about the best possible scenario for their communities going back.”

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