Babies may be at risk as Covid-19 increases family tension, Ofsted chief to warn

Vulnerable babies may be at risk during the Covid-19 pandemic amid increased tension in families, the chief inspector of Ofsted is to warn.

Amanda Spielman will voice concern about a rise in reports of babies that have died or been seriously harmed through abuse or neglect since April.

Speaking at the National Children and Adults Services Conference, she will call on local authority professionals to be “alive to this hidden danger” to ensure vulnerable young children are protected.

Councils have to report any serious incidents where a child dies or is harmed through abuse or neglect to the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. These notifications are then shared with Ofsted and the Government.

Each week, Ofsted is seeing more notifications about harm to children under one the lockdown has added to a “toxic mix” of pressures, Ms Spielman will suggest.

Between April and October this year, the watchdog saw more than 300 serious incident notifications and nearly two in five were about babies – which is over a fifth more than in the same period of last year.

Addressing the “stark” figures, Ms Spielman will say: “Tragically over half of these cases – that’s 64 children – suffered non-accidental injuries. And sadly, eight died as a result.

“Of course, babies can’t tell an adult if there’s a problem. Often, abuse is only uncovered when there’s a critical injury, or it’s too late. Another young life damaged, and in the worst cases, lost, before it’s really had chance to begin…

“It doesn’t bear thinking about. But we must all be alive to this hidden danger.”

As well as babies being intentionally harmed, Ofsted has seen a high number of unexpected infant deaths. This includes preventable tragedies such as babies not being put down to sleep safely.

Ms Spielman will say: “Tighter restrictions have brought increased tensions for many, especially in the most troubled families.

Amanda Spielman
Amanda Spielman

“We’re all spending more time at home these days. For most children, that’s a place of comfort at best, boredom at worst. But for some, sadly, it’s a source of danger.

“The pandemic has brought difficult and stressful times. Financial hardship, loss of employment, isolation, and close family proximity have put extra pressure on families that were already struggling.

“Poverty, inadequate housing, substance misuse and poor mental health all add to this toxic mix.

“You’ll be well aware of the increase in domestic violence incidents over the summer – just one symptom of the Covid pressure cooker.”

Ms Spielman will call on all partners in communities to work together to protect children, saying: “Everyone needs to play their role. That includes professionals across whole communities.

“Midwives, health visitors, GPs and other health workers who have good relationships with families and can build on that trust.

“Staff working in schools and nurseries who may have information about a vulnerable infant because an older sibling attends the setting.

“And help for younger parents is important, but without labelling or patronising them. Building their trust so that they accept advice and learn how to look after their children safely.

“As ever, we cannot overstate the importance of curiosity here. It may not always be comfortable territory. But the right questions protect children.

“Continuing restrictions may be hampering face-to-face visits. But while these children are out of sight, they should never be out of mind.”

Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Any case of a baby or child being harmed is extremely distressing and an enormous cause for concern for councils.

“The pandemic has led to an increasing number of families facing exceptionally difficult circumstances. Councils have worked tirelessly to try and keep children and their families safe and well, through online and virtual contact and resources, as well as high priority home visits.

“It is absolutely critical that professionals are able to keep engaging with families throughout any restrictions, whether local or national.

“As we experience a second wave of the virus and learn lessons from the first, it is vital that health visitors and other community health practitioners are not diverted to acute care, to ensure we can prioritise supporting vulnerable families and babies and identify problems as early as possible.”

Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said: “We have asked children’s social services across the country to prioritise support for families with new babies and especially those families who had already faced difficulties before Covid.

“We have taken urgent action to help councils and frontline professionals support infants. The Chief Nurse has made it clear that community health visitor services should be maintained this winter, and we have made sure that even in this latest lockdown parent and baby support groups can remain open.”