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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 9 July, 2020
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'A breeding ground for abuse': Children at risk behind the closed doors of Covid-19

The second part of Noteworthy’s investigation into domestic abuse finds vulnerable children are losing out on supports and escape during the pandemic.

VULNERABLE CHILDREN ARE at heightened risk of abuse and neglect during the Covid-19 pandemic, but services are struggling to reach those most in need due to social distancing restrictions.

A two-week investigation by Noteworthy has found that concerns about potential child victims of domestic abuse that have been voiced since the lockdown was introduced are wholly justified.

Today, we can reveal that:

  • Services working with vulnerable children say that there is a heightened risk of abuse for children who are now trapped with their abuser 24 hours a day.
  • Children are at particular risk because, with schools and childcare facilities closed, teachers and principals cannot spot and report suspicions of abuse and neglect. Schools usually account for around a quarter of all child protection referrals and early indications from Tusla, the child and family agency, suggest that referrals are down and more children are slipping through the safety net of social services.
  • Some cases of children once considered at risk but which had more recently become resolved or stable are now reopening under the new domestic pressures at play during the crisis.
  • More children are using the internet unsupervised as their parents struggle to balance work, parenting and educating their children from home – as well as managing their own mental health and stress in a time of rising uncertainty. Europol has expressed a concern that paedophiles and child abusers will take advantage of this lacuna to groom and sexually exploit children online.
  • Access arrangements between parents and children who no longer live together are becoming increasingly fraught – either where one parent is genuinely concerned about the risk of infection or where access arrangements are being ignored.
  • Services are concerned that their inability to reach all the children who need them will lead to a growing backlog of cases that will take at least months to address post-lockdown.

Some of these overarching challenges to protecting children at this moment in time mirror similar factors which we explored in part one of our investigation here.

In that piece, we found that domestic abuse charities remain seriously under-funded despite a Government promotion campaign urging victims to reach out for help during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When trying to protect children, however, the stakes are even higher.

Caroline O’Sullivan, director of services at the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), says that her teams have been reaching out since the crisis began to families where there has been a history of domestic violence.

The respite and protection ordinarily provided to children at school, other family members’ homes or in a sports club or other activity has suddenly been taken away.

“It has become more difficult for our services to make contact with them since schools closed,” she says. “An ISPCC resilience support worker works closely with the social worker to determine that the child is okay and the home environment is stable.

“Parents are under strain because of the pressure to work, educate and parent, which can lead to an increase in alcohol and substance consumption. Children are now at home and the environment has become more stressful. It is a breeding ground for emotional abuse.”

shutterstock_695343526 A quarter of referrals to Tusla come from the school environment; that mechanism is currently not available for at-risk children. Source: Shutterstock/Zaitsava Olga

In one such family, a support worker learned that the previous perpetrator of violence in the home has now turned to alcohol – and this has resulted in renewed violence.

This increased domestic stress – coupled with a difficulty in accessing at-risk children – is a theme that repeats itself in all of our conversations with social services and children’s charities about the issues facing children and young people during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Respite removed

Between the first week of March – just before ever-tightening Covid-19 restrictions kicked in – and the first week of April, Childline, which is operated by the ISPCC, recorded a 30% increase in young people contacting them online.

“They may not feel safe to tell others what is happening for them in a position where they may be overheard,” says O’Sullivan. “With a shift to services being provided over the phone, or via video-conferencing or other apps, it has become more difficult to access a full picture of what a home is like at a given time, who is there and how it is – or is not – functioning for a child.”

Catherine McCurdy is a Wexford-based project leader at children’s charity Barnardos, which largely supports disadvantaged families in their homes over a number of months.

A high number of their referrals come from Tusla. Project workers normally take three calls a day but now, because they’re working from home and don’t have to travel, are currently taking about five.

“We’re working with families in poverty, where there is difficulty with money or where there are mental health concerns. Some of the children may have diagnoses of learning difficulties or, if they’ve lived with domestic violence, aggressive behaviour. Since Covid-19, some of this aggressive behaviour has been increasing and so we have had to adapt our programmes to carry out over the phone.”

The charity has seen an increase in self-referrals from families over recent weeks. Old cases, long considered closed, have been reopened.

One case which exemplifies the renewed instability the crisis has brought into previously resolved cases involved a family where, McCurdy says, “we had made good progress”.

“A young person in his mid-teens is living with his mother, a single parent. He has witnessed severe incidents of domestic violence and is in constant fight or flight mode.

He hits out when he feels scared. We had helped him to develop coping skills and we had a safety plan for mother and child to help him if he felt aggressive urges. Now he is in the house and can’t meet up with his friends, so there are further risks for the family.

“We’d finished working with a young mum who has two kids under 12, but she’s come back to us. Our service users have restricted access to us and to other services, and it feels like we are going back to square one. This is unprecedented.”

Project and social workers across Ireland are doing their best to socially distance, both to protect themselves and their clients who may be living in cramped accommodation, but sometimes face-to-face appointments will be absolutely necessary. Doing assessments just outside the house could be an option, but this raises significant privacy issues.

Sexual abuse risk

One of the most insidious forms of abuse perpetrated on children in their own homes is sexual assault. There can often be a direct correlation between incidents of domestic abuse of another adult in the home and abuse of a child under the same roof. In such homes, there is no escape.

Paula, June and Joyce Kavanagh are three adult sisters who advocate for better child protection measures and know that being trapped in this intense situation is akin to torture for some children right now.

The Dublin sisters were sexually abused throughout their childhood by their father, Kevin Kavanagh, who also raped and abused children outside the family home. He was brought to justice in 1989, served a seven-year-prison sentence and died a year after release.

“More and more people are understanding what it is like to feel trapped,” says Paula. “Not being able to go out the door without fear is what it feels like to be controlled. I worry that, because not all men are able to express emotion properly, and there’s no escape and no break or from the kids, some will hit out.”

Sexual abusers may try to get a child alone, and even though that might be more difficult with all the family at home right now, June notes,

Our father was always creative about getting someone alone. His attempts might be frustrated but he would still try to find a way.

Earlier this month, Cari (Children at Risk in Ireland), a charity that provides therapy for child victims of sexual abuse and their families, received a phone call to its helpline about a child at immediate risk.

“We could not contact the social worker, so we contacted the duty social worker,” says Cari’s executive director Eve Farrelly. “The gardai had to go and do a safety check and, with restrictions in place, it took most of the day.”

Cari’s help and support line remain open and this can be a place where anyone concerned about or affected by sexual abuse can call for help.

Far from the stubbornly prevalent folk image of a man cruising housing estates in a white van, luring children in the back, at least 80% of abusers are known to the child – usually a father or male guardian, brother, uncle, neighbour, cousin or family friend. Experts believe that around a third of abusers are under 25 or teenagers. At least 90% of abusers are male.

Like other forms of child and domestic abuse, being trapped at home with an abuser presents a heightened risk to young people. Farrelly says:

Community and sports clubs as well as school can act as a protective tool for children, but that has now been taken away. Grannies and aunts are now out of reach as a place of respite too.

Child sexual abuse is a problem across the entire country, affecting children from all backgrounds. “Before the current crisis, we had a waiting list of 85 children,” says Farrelly. “They were waiting at least a year. Now, our list has risen to 114 children in need of therapeutic support.”

Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, has reported an increase in online activity by those seeking child sexual abuse material. It comes at exactly the same time as growing numbers of children at home are online and less likely to be supervised by stressed parents who are trying to work, parent and educate children at the same time.

Being isolated in a bedroom and spending too much time online is a risk factor for young people to download pornography – including illegal child sex abuse material – and to become vulnerable to online grooming, One in Four has previously said.

Farrelly also says that unlimited access to smartphones and pornography leaves young people with a “porn-saturated brain that is unable to cognitively understand what they are seeing at 11, 12 or 13 years of age, and they’re not learning anything about intimacy, consent or respect. We are seeing an increase in reports of teens saying that they have had rough or uncomfortable experiences.”

Cari’s Eve Farrelly is one of many child protection experts who believes we need substantive reform of the criminal justice system once we emerge from the current crisis.

“We have a court accompaniment service for children but we often see trials being subject to long delays – sometimes so long that the child has aged out of protection. These delays can be caused by due process but at other times they are unnecessary: the child has turned up in court but there’s no judge, or the defense put in for a delay, or the defendant doesn’t turn up, or it’s adjourned for a year.”

In Ireland, children can give their evidence on video but must attend court to be cross-examined – and new Tusla guidelines allow alleged abusers to question the complainant in certain circumstances and with the child’s permission – by the defence. Long delays can hang over a child and prevent them from healing.

“In Scotland, a new pilot programme allows children to give their evidence at an early stage and the cross-examination is also pre-recorded so that it doesn’t matter how long it takes for a case to go to trial,” Farrelly says.

“Here, the Barnahus model in Galway means that a child can engage with Tusla, the Garda, and a forensic medical exam all under one roof.”

Access and maintenance breaking down

Where two parents are no longer together, access to and maintenance of their children are emerging as fraught issues during this pandemic.

On March 13, the family law courts indicated that only emergency applications would be dealt with, including requests for interim barring orders and protection orders where domestic abuse is alleged. While parents may also bring emergency applications for access and maintenance, these will only be heard if they can make a strong enough case.

Sandra McAleer is a family law solicitor who frequently practises at Dolphin House, the Dublin District Family Law Court.

One of my clients is a mother who currently can’t get her child back off the father. I have advised them to get the Gardai to enforce the order, but the child usually has to be produced in court at a certain time or the order is being breached.

“People are not always complying with access at the moment – for example if it is usually in (play centre) Funky Monkey’s every Saturday at 2pm – and some parents are saying no because of lockdown. Others are not taking up access because they are with vulnerable parents.”

Karen Kiernan is CEO of One Family, a charity that works to support lone parents, including single mothers and single fathers. She says that they are also seeing some parents “misuse access as “an opportunity to continue the physical, verbal or emotional abuse” of the other parent.

“We are hearing of parents suddenly keeping the children, as well as some parents who won’t let the children go for visits anymore and parents who don’t want to see the children.

“There’s a common concern where one parent is living with elderly or immunocompromised friends or relatives and they’re concerned that the other parent is not adhering to social distancing guidelines,” says Kiernan.

“It is not acceptable that someone should flout these guidelines and could be grounds to make an application to the courts.”

However, Kiernan and other organisations say that courts are generally not hearing access cases at the moment, with a few exceptions.

The One Family website has advice on how to manage these situations during this time of crisis, while the Family Mediation Service is conducting telephone mediations.

Numerous organisations on the ground also say maintenance payments are emerging as an issue: because many parents have lost their jobs and seen a reduction in income, some are ceasing to pay child support – although others may be using it as an excuse to withhold payments.

If a parent is in receipt of a lone parent payment, it is means-tested against their maintenance payment. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection says that, where a one-parent family allowance recipient has their maintenance payment stopped by the other parent, they should contact their local Intreo office and inform them by letter that they are no longer receiving the maintenance payment from the other parent. It added that it is monitoring this situation to ensure lone parents don’t have to endure extra hardship.

Backlog – and a backwards step

Sources say that social workers are doing their best in very difficult circumstances, including making assessments about the safety of children. Collaboration between Tusla, Barnardos and the ISPCC means that information is being shared, but necessary social distancing restrictions limit the number of people who can be in the office at any one time while social workers who are working from home also have to factor in their own childcare difficulties.

Around a quarter of Tusla’s referrals come from schools; with them closed, many children are not being referred at a time when they may need help more than ever.

“Tusla Education Support Service is working closely with principals, home school community liaison coordinators, and local agencies to support those most in need, including contacting families to offer support,” a Tusla spokesperson says.

“Where there is an immediate risk to a child or young person, there is an immediate protective response.” Tusla staff around the country have been provided with detailed guidance.

shutterstock_1675198060 While teachers and other points of contact are trying to stay in touch by video links, at-risk children can fall through the net. Source: Shutterstock/Maria Symchych

Barnardos team leader Catherine McCurdy is worried that minor and major issues are being missed by the lack of face-to-face contact.

She is also worried that the work put in with children in disadvantaged schools could be undone.

“When people are traumatised, they react to stress differently and it can be compounded if someone has been through a trauma such as domestic violence. Add to that the extra stress of not being able to go out, not having a support worker, school or teacher support and being a parent in a small, overcrowded and inappropriate housing.

Imagine what it’s like for a young, single, traumatised mother whose children have several diagnoses and who is living in a substandard home. In the past few weeks, we’ve worked with a family who had to spend a night sleeping in a car after a falling out at home.

McCurdy is anxious that, when the crisis has subsided, services such as those offered by Barnardos and Tusla will not be left to clean up a mess without extra resources. The project staff are worried that, when this is all over, there will be a backlog.

Meanwhile, fundraising opportunities have dried up and, as with many charities, those aimed at protecting children face a funding crisis into next year.

Tusla says that visiting is still taking place in the most focused cases and in line with the best interest of the child to ensure that “there isn’t a backlog in as much as possible”. The body says: “There is no doubt that the routine work of many public service organisations will be challenged after the public health emergency has abated and we will plan for this accordingly.”

Solutions for now.. and beyond

Services working at the coalface all say that these issues have been simmering for decades, but that the Covid-19 crisis – and the awareness of how difficult it is to even be trapped indoors with people who are kind and loving, let alone an abuser – has propelled it to the top of public consciousness.

Now, they say, it is time for a number of short, medium and long-term fixes.

At a teleconference meeting chaired by Karen Kiernan of One Family earlier this month a number of family and children-facing organisations – including Barnardos, The Rape Crisis Network, Women’s Aid, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Children’s Rights Alliance, Safe Ireland (a domestic abuse support organisation) and the Daughters of Charity – presented a suite of solutions to address ongoing child welfare concerns, including:

  • Providing one source of information about all the family support services that continue to operate, made pubic and widely promoted to all support providers, national helpline services and local authorities;
  • For local authority and community volunteers to be given child protection training so they can report concerns and for the message to be spread that child protection is everyone’s concern, particularly during the pandemic;
  • An emergency State fund created to guarantee existing family and victims’ support groups can maintain current levels of service provision;
  • All providers of school and out-of-school meals should have awareness of the family support provisions available and of the potential dangers of food poverty to families during this crisis;
  • Clarity from the courts service that non-compliance with court orders where children are not returned would trigger an emergency court hearing.

Long-term recommendations from across the sector include:

  • Additional resources into the system and significant strategic planning now to ensure there are not backlogs for courts, social services and charities concerned with child welfare when the crisis has abated;
  • Helplines for people who may be at risk of carrying out physical, emotional or sexual abuse;
  • Reform of the family law courts so that child protection is paramount, and greater connections between the family law and criminal law courts;
  • Ongoing reform of Tusla so that it can be proactive in its work, helping to address crises before they escalate, and ultimately saving the State money in the medium to long-term;
  • Beyond anti-drugs education, investment in impoverished communities and providing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds or backgrounds of domestic abuse with real opportunities that might keep them away from drugs.

Anyone with knowledge and experience in the area  knows what reforms are necessary to better protect children following the Covid-19 crisis, Joyce Kavanagh says; we just need to implement them.

“Look at what they can do if there is a will. Look at how they knocked down the two-tier health system overnight. They could take this seriously and put in the right supports and funding (for organisations such as One in Four, Cari, Barnardos, Tusla and other support organisations).

“We have the experts. We have enough survivors with the experience to say what is needed. Name these services as essential and ensure that they don’t constantly have to worry about basic funding.”

***

This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

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