The number of child welfare reports filed with child protection authorities did not increase when schools re-opened following about two months of distance learning, according to an Yle investigation.
Officials had previously expressed concern that a decline in welfare reports during the spring when children were learning at home meant that cases of neglect or abuse might have been overlooked. They speculated at the time that the reduced number of reports was due to the fact that in many cases, reports are filed by school or daycare officials.
But according to Yle’s review of data there has so far been no increase in reports during the last two weeks of the school year when pupils returned to class.
Yle checked social workers’ figures on child welfare reports in large cities such as Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Turku, Tampere and Oulu. Only Tampere showed no change in reports during the pandemic.
However in the other large cities, the data showed a sharp fall in the number of complaints at the start of the partial state of emergency, when schools closed to help curb the spread of coronavirus. In Turku, for example, the number of child welfare reports fell by 25 percent in April compared to the same time last year, while the corresponding amount in Espoo was more than 30 percent.
After the initial steep drop, the number of notifications began to climb slowly, but in many cities it is still at their usual low level.
Helsinki child welfare social work head Jonna Vanhanen said that during May there was an exceptionally low number of reports about children in distress. She noted that typically, reports begin to rise in May as the academic year comes to an end.
"Since the beginning of the state of emergency, there have been few child welfare complaints compared to the past. When school starts there are usually somewhat more [reports] compared to the beginning of May, for example, but the difference is considerable compared to last year," she added.
In Helsinki, the reduced number of notifications are visible, especially in reports concerning violence towards children, children’s psychological problems, substance abuse and offences committed by minors.
Crisis could conceal problems
Authorities believe that a lower number of child welfare reports is bad news because it suggests that problems have gone underground. In recent years, the trend has been for such complaints to grow steadily from year to year.
"This is a worrying phenomenon. Apparently we now have a lot of invisible distress that is not coming to anyone’s attention," Children’s Ombudsman Elina Pakkarinen said.
She pointed out that in addition to distance learning, the lives of children and teens had also been affected by a lack of other services and adult contact. Counselling visits had fallen and youth outreach work could no longer take place face to face.
"On top of that many children may have parents with substance abuse or mental health problems. If they don’t use [social] services, their children’s distress and need for support will not be visible," she added.
Hanna Heinonen, chief executive of the Central Union for Child Welfare, said that she was worried about whether or not children in need of assistance and support had been overlooked during the spring when kids were not at school.
"The coronavirus situation has especially affected families that struggled with everyday life, even before the state of emergency. There’s a concern whether or not this has created a pent-up need for services," Heinonen said.
More support needed in autumn
For schools, a child welfare report is a last resort for addressing children’s problems. As a result, the real need for child protection services is usually only known after school vacations.
"It’s foreseeable that after the holiday there will be a situation where many children and families will need support to deal with everyday life," Heinonen said.
Officials in Vantaa are preparing for a larger than usual demand for youth support services in particular during the summer, according to family services director Anna Cantell-Forsbom.
The number of child welfare notifications in Vantaa, fell markedly to a lower-than-normal level when schools closed because of the crisis, but rebounded to closer to the levels seen last year during April.
"During the coronavirus situation Vantaa’s social and crisis unit has recorded cases of family violence and increased alcohol consumption by parents and this has resulted in more emergency visits than usual," Cantell-Forsbom added.
According to Children’s Ombudsman Pakkarinen now is the time to focus on offering assistance as early as possible so that family problems do not escalate.
"We should especially place emphasis on vulnerable children and young people and make sure that their need for support does not become so great that they have to turn to child protection services, for example," she declared.
Politicians have also expressed concern over the impact of the crisis on children. Government is expected to include a support package for children and young adults in its supplemental budget next week. The funding will aim to address any disadvantages caused by the long period of distance learning.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has also created a working group charged with strengthening children’s rights and to support after-care for children and families following the crisis. The working group is due to wrap up its work at the end of October.