Government advisers have warned of a “significant surge” in child protection cases over school absences during the pandemic.
The experts sounded the alarm over the “hidden harm” of children not being able to reach out for help in their homes.
School closures were a key plank of the Government’s lockdown strategy to keep Covid infection levels low.
Progress with the vaccine has enabled schools to reopen.
Pre-pandemic figures showed the number of children on the protection register stood at 2,654.
Common causes for concern were emotional and domestic abuse, parental substance issues, and neglect.
The Daily Record can reveal a Scottish Government group is worried the numbers are about to rise.
A minute of a July meeting of a covid sub-group stated: “It was noted that child protection figures are the lowest since 2002, including for Looked After Children. It was expected there will be a significant surge in these figures towards the autumn, with work being planned to look at this in more detail.”
The shock minute continued: “There was ongoing concern that periods of absence from school and ELC [early learning centres] settings have led to a “hidden harm” where there are children and young people not previously involved with social services who are experiencing harm, ill-health or exposure to risks and who, outwith school, might not be able to actively reach out for support.
“Sub-group members noted that, due to the pandemic, some children would be heading into their third academic year of school or early learning and childcare without normal socialisation, and the impact of this needs to be considered.”
An education source said the child protection fear was one of the arguments used for doing everything to keep schools open, as it was felt some young people are safer there than at home.
The meeting was attended by Professor Devi Sridhar, who has been a key voice during the pandemic.
Labour MSP Michael Marra said: “Social work services that have been cut to the bone are in no state to deal with a surge in child protection issues.
“Hidden harms will require a broader set of work with children and families, which statutory services have effectively ended their work in.
“Third sector providers are facing a perfect storm of greatly reduced fund raising, year on year cuts to budgets coming from Scottish Government budgets and policies, and soaring need.
“The SNP has shown no understanding of the scale of the crisis across Scottish society and all sectors. The SNP has no real plan for national recovery.”
Martin Crewe, director for Barnardo’s Scotland, said: “Barnardo’s Scotland work in over 400 schools across Scotland, and for those children and young people whose home life has challenges due to neglect or abuse, being back in school may provide a sense of safety.
“However, we are expecting referrals for foster care and mental health to climb now that schools are re-opened, as teachers and professionals identify vulnerable young people needing support, and the expectation that there may be a significant surge in child protection issues is sadly not a surprise.
“With children now returned to the classroom, it may feel like the acute crisis of last year has passed, but we are only at the start of the long journey to rebuild and recover. Many young people will need extra time and support to transition back this term.”
Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner, added: “Since the first lockdown and throughout we have consistently raised concerns about the impacts on children’s rights of them being away from school, early learning and childcare settings, sports and cultural clubs, and wider community supports, including the right to be kept safe from harm.
“Protecting children at immediate risk of harm is essential and the Scottish Government must ensure that sufficient resource is made available to help children and families who need additional supports around them.
“This includes ensuring that the skilled professionals in our schools and early years and childcare have the time to build trusting relationships with children.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We know that periods of lockdown had the potential to put vulnerable children and young people at higher risk. As a result, social workers and other professionals acted to provide early support for children and families during the pandemic.
“It was anticipated that demand for children’s services was likely to increase as restrictions eased, schools returned and face-to-face visits by professionals and household interactions increased. This has not been reflected by an increase in the number of children with a child protection plan, but we continue to closely monitor this.”
Latest data shows that there were 1,991 children with a child protection plan as at 8 September.
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