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The mass redeployment of health visitors and staff from perinatal mental health and parent-infant teams risks putting already vulnerable children at greater risk, charities have warned.
In some areas of England, at least 50% of these highly skilled staff are being redeployed into other health services to help shore them up during the Covid-19 crisis, they said.
“Babies don’t have a voice. This is a time when they need someone to be speaking up for them”
The organisations highlighted that the pressures of the lockdown could exacerbate already fragile situations in which some young children were living.
The charities, part of the First 1001 Days Movement, are calling on national and local commissioning bodies to give urgent attention to the wellbeing of babies, toddlers and parents during the crisis.
The First 1001 Days Movement includes over 40 leading mental health, family and children’s charities and professional bodies, including the Institute of Health Visiting.
While recognising the incredible work done in recent weeks, the charities want to highlight the need to protect children and parents from the serious harm as a result of the response to the outbreak.
They described the huge risks faced by some babies and toddlers as a result of increased pressure on already vulnerable parents, and the scaling back of services that would normally support them.
Babies, both born and unborn, and their parents should be given particular attention right now because this was a critical period with serious immediate and long-term consequences, they said.
In a joint statement, the charities said: “It has already been widely recognised that for some people, home is not a safe haven.
“Across the UK, there are babies and children in lockdown in poor quality and overcrowded housing, with shortages of basic supplies, cared for by parents under immense pressure.
“Babies, born and unborn, are particularly vulnerable to physical and emotional harm,” they said. “Therefore, it is essential that Government is keeping their needs in mind.”
The charities cited research showing that, prior to the crisis, between 10-20% of women experienced mental health problems in the perinatal period.
“Lockdown places additional pressures on parental mental health, family finances and relationships”
Meanwhile, other studies suggested 25,000 babies in England lived in households where parental mental illness, domestic abuse and/or substance misuse was present.
These problems were escalating during the Covid-19 crisis as a result of the range of stresses facing families, they warned.
The statement calls on local services to work together to ensure there is sufficient support for parents, and protection for children.
This should not only be for families known to be at risk before the crisis, but also those families who may be experiencing new or heightened problems as a result of the crisis, it noted.
While many teams are working hard to deliver services in different ways – such as phone calls, video consultations and online forums – the charities argue these may not be enough to reach those suffering from multiple disadvantage, and to understand what is really happening.
The charity statement calls for the following:
Ensure that the physical and emotional needs of the youngest children are considered more explicitly and transparently by those making decisions about the response to COVID-19. Provide clarity on who in high-level decision making forums, such as COBRA, is representing the needs of babies and their parents.
Provide clear guidance for health and social services on maintaining vital support for families. This must encourage an informed and coordinated local approach in each area that draws on partnerships between statutory agencies and charities (utilising any local volunteers effectively and appropriately) to ensure all families get the support they need. This guidance should minimise the re-deployment of staff from community services, in particular health visiting, parent-infant and perinatal mental health teams, recognising that these services provide essential support to families at highest risk and are needed more than ever. Decision makers must balance action to tackle COVID-19 with action to reduce its immediate and long-term negative impact on parents and the next generation.
Ensure that the strategy to end the lockdown considers the needs of babies and their families, and the services that work with them. Government must consider how services can swiftly and safely return to offering high-quality face to face support to families and how additional support can be put in place to mitigate the impacts of social distancing, particularly on the most vulnerable families.
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Sally Hogg, head of policy and campaigning at the Parent-Infant Foundation and co-ordinator of First 1001 Days, called for a senior minister to be given “clear responsibility” for the wellbeing of children.
“Babies don’t have a voice. This is a time when they need someone to be speaking up for them, and championing their needs at the highest levels in Westminster and Whitehall,” she said.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England said: “I support this statement from the 1001 Days Movement.
“While thankfully babies and toddlers seem to be at lower risk of COVID-19 illness, we know that many are vulnerable to a host of secondary risks,” she said.
“Lockdown places additional pressures on parental mental health, family finances and relationships, and leaves families without their support networks.
“Families with vulnerable young children need help in caring for, bonding with and supporting the development of their babies and toddlers,” she added.