The Guardian view on children in the pandemic: hidden victims | Editorial | Opinion

The removal of protections in 10 sets of regulations relating to the care of looked-after children in England, with no public consultation or parliamentary debate, must be seen for what it is: an attack on their rights. Added to a broader set of concerns about the impact of the lockdown on poorer, vulnerable and at-risk children, particularly the rise in domestic abuse and the widening educational inequality expected to follow from weeks of missed school and increased poverty, there are grounds to be seriously alarmed.

Children are less vulnerable than other age group to the virus itself, although deaths have of course been the cause of particular heartache, as all deaths of children are. A new, serious illness that combines Covid-19 symptoms with others, described as a form of toxic shock syndrome, appears to be mercifully rare, with about 12 cases in the UK so far. But while attention is rightly focused on other vulnerable groups (ethnic minorities, older and disabled adults) as well as on the population as a whole, there is a danger not only that children’s interests are neglected, but also that adults are too distracted by other threats to do anything about this.

Twice in the past four years, two previous children’s ministers have attempted to roll back protections, including the entitlement of a child placed with new carers to be visited by a social worker within a week and checked on every six weeks. Independent six-monthly reviews of placements have been mandatory since the 1940s. But no longer. Now, following an abbreviated process that involved discussions with the Independent Children’s Homes Association, but not the main adoption and fostering charities or children’s rights groups, not only have visits been replaced with phone or video calls (reasonable in current circumstances), time limits for social worker checks and reviews have been removed.

Local authorities’ obligations with regard to children’s social care have evolved gradually and unevenly, with the paroxysms of remorse following disasters such as the torture and murder of Victoria Climbié leading to big changes. Now, suddenly, long-established practice, such as the reliance on adoption panels to make life-changing decisions and requirements for criminal records checks, is being dissolved. But why? The Guardian has no wish to impugn the motives or capabilities of the children’s minister, Vicky Ford, who made the changes after being in post for nine weeks. Given that they long predate her (identical moves to ditch six-monthly reviews were abandoned by Justine Greening), it seems clear that the deregulatory pressure comes from elsewhere.

Children in foster placements and children’s homes are already suffering disproportionately under the pandemic. They rely more on input from their teachers and other adults from whom they are now separated. In addition, many are used to regular meetings with birth parents or other relatives, including grandparents. In some cases the stopping of these this will be the cause of extreme distress.

Police believe children are at increased risk of harm, including sexual abuse, during lockdown, and that crimes against them are going undetected (in normal times, teachers are the largest source of referrals). So far, child homicides do not appear to have risen in the way that homicides of women have, although in one horrifying case, two siblings aged under five have been killed. But this is the coldest possible comfort. Rarely has the lowly and disjointed nature of policymaking regarding children appeared more glaring. The pandemic must bring change.

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