NSPCC: Online child abuse crimes have risen by almost 80%

The NSPCC is calling for the upcoming Online Safety Bill to be strengthened to “prioritise children” after figures show that online abuse crimes have surged by 78% over the last 4 years.

The national children’s charity says that an analysis of police reports reveals that the number of children being sexually abused online has risen by over three quarters in recent years and that this “dramatic and hugely troubling growth” demonstrates the urgent need to better protect children online.

Data obtained via Freedom of Information Requests from police forces across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands shows:

  • 9,742 online child sexual offences were recorded by 41 police forces last year
  • Recorded crimes have increased from 5,458 during 2016-17 to 9,736 in 2020-21, according to data from 39 forces who were able to provide figures for both time periods
  • The data includes offences such as sexual assault, rape or sexual communication with a child where any element of the offence was committed online

Online Safety Bill contains ‘substantive weaknesses’

Now, the NSPCC has assessed the draft Online Safety Bill published by the government and has found “substantive weaknesses” in its plans to protect children from preventable abuse online.

They are encouraging supporters to write to the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and urge him to prioritise children and strengthen the Bill.

The NSPCC have defined six tests for the Online Safety Bill, along with a series of indicators for whether the new regulations are likely to be effective in protecting children from illegal harm online.

They say that the latest draft Bill meets just 9 of their 27 indicators and that a further 10 remain largely or completely unmet.

They are calling for the draft legislation to be strengthened in a number of key ways before being passed into law. These are:

  • It must tackle cross-platform risks. This includes implementing measures to stop grooming and abuse spreading between different apps and services, with companies working together to proactively share information.
  • It must prevent abuse at the earliest possible stage. This means treating behaviour that directly facilitates child abuse with the same severity as the illegal material it causes and tackling the ‘digital breadcrumbs’ that abusers leave on online platforms to signpost to child abuse images.
  • It must close gaps in the child safety duty. The Bill currently only covers platforms which have a ‘significant’ number of child users. This could mean that high-risk sites such as Telegram and OnlyFans could be excluded from the duty and may mean that harmful content is simply displaced to smaller sites, rather than being prevented.
  • It must hold senior managers accountable. The NSPCC suggests that a Named Persons Scheme should introduce personal liability for individuals at tech companies when they fail to uphold their duty of care. This could include criminal sanctions, fines, censure and disbarment.
  • It must introduce a dedicated user advocate for children. This could be funded by the industry levy and would reflect standard legislation in other sectors.

‘Once-in-a-generation’ chance to protect children online

The Chief Executive of the NSPCC, Sir Peter Wanless, says that children have a right to “explore the online world safely,” but that a lack of regulation has led to “a dramatic and hugely troubling growth in the scale of online abuse.”

He explained:

“The Government has a once-in-a-generation chance to deliver a robust but proportionate regulatory regime that can truly protect children from horrendous online harms.

“But, as it stands, there are substantive weaknesses in its plans, which cannot be overlooked. The draft Bill fails to prevent inherently avoidable abuse or reflect the magnitude and complexity of online risks to children.

“The Bill is at a crucial point in pre-legislative scrutiny, and now is the time for the Government to be ambitious to protect children and families from preventable abuse.”

The NSPCC provides online safety advice and guidance on its website.

Safeguarding children

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“Safeguarding children means protecting them off and online. It’s so important that we are mindful of the harms they could be exposed to online and that there are mechanisms in place to protect them, and to offer them help and support when they need it most.”

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Concerns about parental substance misuse rise 66%

The NSPCC has reported a 66% rise in the number of people contacting them with concerns about parental substance misuse.

The national children’s charity says that long-term drug and alcohol misuse among parents has become a growing concern for members of the public, who are contacting their helpline with fears for children being put at risk.

In fact, such concerns have risen by 66% since April 2020, during the first national coronavirus lockdown in England.

From January to March 2020, the NSPCC says they were receiving around 700 contacts a month from adults worried about the welfare of a child whose parents were misusing drugs or alcohol, but, since then, this has risen to an average of 1,178 contacts each month.

The charity warns that lockdown has resulted in children becoming much more involved in problems at home.

The closure of schools and restrictions on socialising with their friends means that there is no escape for children who are living with parental substance misuse.

The NSPCC says that the majority of parents who use alcohol or drugs do so in moderation and do not pose a risk to their children. Long-term substance misuse, however, is different and can mean that parents develop mental, psychological and physical illnesses.

While this does not necessarily mean that they will abuse their child, it can make it more difficult for them to provide safe and loving care. This can therefore mean that children do experience abuse or neglect, and it can have a serous impact on a family’s emotional wellbeing.

Signs that a family may be struggling with substance misuse issues include:

  • Mental and psychological illness
  • An increasingly chaotic and unpredictable lifestyle
  • Domestic abuse
  • Children taking responsibility for the care of their parents or siblings
  • Parents struggling to recognise and meet their children’s needs

The NSPCC wants the government to ensure that local substance misuse services remain available throughout the pandemic to support families affected by it.

They are also calling for ministers to develop a plan to invest in services to help children and families to recover from the distress and disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis.

The Head of the NSPCC Helpline, Kam Thandi, says: “At the NSPCC helpline we’ve not only seen a rise in contacts and referrals but we’re also seeing families who weren’t previously known to children’s services requiring help and support for substance misuse.

“The pressures on families at the moment are unprecedented and it is no surprise that our helpline is hearing that parents and carers are struggling with substance misuse. To keep our children safe it’s vital that those who are relying on drugs and alcohol, to the extent that the care of their children is being compromised, must seek help.

“The government must also invest more in local services. Our frontline practitioners have told us that many parents and carers are struggling to access specialist support services which will help them recover from the impact of the pandemic.”

Adfam, a charity which provides support to families affected by drug, alcohol or gambling addiction, is backing the NSPCC in their concerns.

The charity’s Chief Executive, Vivienne Evans OBE, explained: “A staggering 88% of the families that we surveyed in our ‘Families in Lockdown’ survey told us that the first lockdown negatively impacted on their family member’s alcohol, drug or gambling problem. A third of families experienced an increase in verbal abuse from their family member and 13% feel more concerned than usual for their safety.

“We know that with the right kind of support, children and young people can navigate this challenging time. We urge families not to wait until breaking point.”

Anyone worried about their own substance misuse can contact the NSPCC helpline or ask their local GP for support. The NHS website also features a database of treatment services and Alcohol Change UK provide online advice about managing drinking during lockdown.

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‘Shocking’ rise in child abuse during lockdown

The Children’s Society has described the 27% increase in reported incidents of children dying or being seriously harmed following suspected child abuse or neglect as ‘shocking.’

It has been revealed that the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel received 285 serious incident notifications from April to September 2020, following England’s first national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

This represents an increase of more than a quarter (27%) from the same period in 2019.

It comes after England’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, warned of the “invisibility of vulnerable children” during the pandemic last year.

Previously, serious incident notifications had been falling, with 274 incidents reported in 2018-19, which then fell to 225 incidents in 2019-20 before increasing again in 2020-21 after lockdown was imposed.

The data does also include children who were in care and died, regardless of whether abuse or neglect was suspected.

Local authorities across England are required to report all incidents of death or serious harm involving children in their areas to the Department for Education as part of the serious incident notification system.

According to the data published by the Department, child deaths increased from 89 in the same period in 2019 to 119 last year and the number of children being seriously harmed rose from 132 to 153.

Perhaps most shockingly, the number of serious incidents involving children under the age of one rose by almost a third (30%).

The data shows that harm suffered by those aged 16 or over also rose by 30%.

More than half (54%) of the 285 incidents related to boys and almost two thirds related to white children. Two thirds of cases also occurred while children were living at home.

Iryna Pona, Policy Manager at the Children’s Society said that the rise in serious incidents occurred when the Covid-19 pandemic was having a “huge impact on the wellbeing of children and families and disrupted help available to those who needed it most.”

She added: “During the first lockdown many vulnerable children were stuck at home in difficult, sometimes dangerous situations, often isolated from friends and support networks.

“Sadly, children also continued to be targeted and groomed by people outside their families for sexual and criminal exploitation like county lines drug dealing operations, which can lead to serious violence or death.

“At the same time, they were often hidden from view of professionals like social workers and teachers who are best placed to spot the signs if they may be in danger.”

The first national lockdown in England began in mid-March 2020 and ended in July. A second short national lockdown took place from early November until early December and a third lockdown is currently ongoing and is expected to last until at least mid-February.

Ms Pona said that during this third lockdown it was “vital” that social care and schools work together closely to ensure all vulnerable children, including those in care, have regular contact with a trusted professional.

A government spokesperson commented: “Every single incident of this nature is a tragedy and we are working to understand the impact the pandemic may be having.

“Throughout the past months, we have prioritised the most vulnerable children and their families and put in place support to protect babies.

“We’ve maintained vital frontline services because we know it has been a challenge for many, especially for new parents, and we’ve invested thousands of pounds in charities working with vulnerable children and their families.

“Today we have launched a wholescale review of children’s social care to reform the system and think afresh about how we support the most vulnerable. This data will provide important information to the care review to help address major challenges.”

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A trainer from FRT says: “There are many hidden victims of the pandemic, and it is saddening that measures introduced to keep the nation safe and healthy may have contributed to children being placed at greater risk of harm.

“It’s so important that this issue is being discussed and that action is being taken to ensure that these children do not continue to fall through the cracks.

“It’s vital that anyone who works with children and young people completes Safeguarding training so that they are aware of the signs of abuse and neglect and know the correct action to take if they suspect a child is at risk.”

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Ofsted warns of ‘invisibility of vulnerable children’ in lockdown

Ofsted have warned that vulnerable children at risk of harm have “slipped out of sight” during the national coronavirus lockdown.

England’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, has warned that, when schools were closed during the first national lockdown, children may have missed out on the help they needed due to teachers being unable to spot the early warning signs of abuse or neglect.

As she launched her annual report, Ms Spielman said the “invisibility of vulnerable children” during the Covid-19 crisis should be a “matter of national concern.”

The first lockdown saw schools remain open only for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, but many eligible families did not send their children to school. The Ofsted chief says that this, coupled with a lack of access for health visitors, had a “dramatic impact”, with a reduction in concerns over neglect or abuse being referred to local authorities.

In fact, the Local Government Association has revealed that referrals to children’s social care teams fell by around a fifth, to 41,000 cases between April and June. This resulted in around 1,600 children being looked after, which is a third below previous years.

Ms Spielman said that identifying those vulnerable children who were overlooked during the pandemic was now a priority, and called for “urgent” coordinated action.

Published today (1st December 2020), her report also raises wider concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of pupils who have faced isolation, anxiety, loneliness or bereavement during the pandemic.

It also highlights the pressures placed on families of children with special educational needs, many of whom are reportedly “struggling to cope.” These “hidden victims” of the pandemic missed out on support services and specialist activities, while those who were shielding also missed out on time in school.

Ms Spielman said:

“Covid-19 has exposed an already crumbling infrastructure that fails to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children all too often.”

Although Ofsted suspended its regular inspections during the pandemic, the report notes that the disruption to lessons has resulted in many pupils slipping back and warns that the attainment gap between rich and poor children will widen.

The education watchdog said that the quality of online learning for pupils during the lockdown was “variable,” as some lacked access to technology and others lacked the motivation to learn at home.

Apprenticeships were found to be the “least effective” education providers during this challenging time, and two thirds of apprentices had either been furloughed, made redundant or had their off-the-job training suspended.

Paul Whiteman from the National Association of Head Teachers said that school leaders shared Ofsted’s concerns about vulnerable children during the pandemic but that budgets for child support services had been “slashed” in recent years.

He said schools were under great pressure and asked Ofsted not to resume their regular school inspection regime in the New Year.

Meanwhile, the head of the Association of School and College Leavers (ASCL), Geoff Barton, said the report highlighted “an important issue” and added: “Schools worked very hard to reach out to families with vulnerable children and bring these pupils into the emergency provision in schools during the first national lockdown.

“Schools have been highly focused on addressing any problems with the wellbeing of students since full reopening in September, and they are very relieved to have vulnerable pupils back in school where they can make sure they have the support they need.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Education commented: “The safety and well-being of the most vulnerable children has always been our focus, which is why we kept nurseries, schools and colleges open for those children throughout the pandemic.

“It remains a national priority to keep full-time education open for all.”

First Response Training (FRT) is a leading national training provider delivering courses in subjects such as health and safety, first aid, fire safety, manual handling, food hygiene, mental health, health and social care, safeguarding and more.

They work with a large number of early years and childcare providers, as well as schools, colleges, and children’s services. Their courses include Safeguarding Children.

A trainer from FRT says: “There are many hidden victims of the pandemic, and it is saddening that measures introduced to keep the nation safe and healthy may have contributed to children being placed at greater risk of harm.

“It’s so important that this issue is being discussed and that action is being taken to ensure that these children do not continue to fall through the cracks.

“It’s vital that anyone who works with children and young people completes Safeguarding training so that they are aware of the signs of abuse and neglect and know the correct action to take if they suspect a child is at risk.”

For more information on the training that FRT can provide, please call them today on freephone 0800 310 2300 or send an e-mail to info@firstresponsetraining.com.