Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman has revealed sixty four babies were deliberately harmed in England – eight of whom died. Some 40% of the 300 incidents reported involved infants, up a fifth on 2019.
Ms Spielman believes a “toxic mix” of isolation, poverty and mental illness caused the March to October spike.
When schools were closed in March, children’s charities and teachers expressed fears that children at risk would be left even more vulnerable under lockdown. This was part of the reason schools stayed open to vulnerable children.
Ms Spielman will tell a conference of local authority leaders on Friday:
“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 the chance to begin… It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But we must all be alive to this hidden 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.”
Violence towards babies was already a worry before the Covid-19 pandemic according to Ofsted.
Over a quarter of all incidents reported to the child safeguarding practice review panel last year involved non-accidental injuries to babies.
This often involves children being abused by young parents, or other family or household members, who have very little social support, Ofsted says.
As well as babies being intentionally harmed, Ofsted has seen a high number of unexpected infant deaths.
This includes preventable tragedies: babies not being put down to sleep safely, for example, sharing a bed or sofa with a parent who has been drinking.
Ms Spielman will acknowledge that there has been good work to identify high risk babies during lockdown, such as the children of parents misusing substances, or with serious mental health problems.
In these cases, professionals who understand the risk factors acted decisively to give families the help they need, she will say.
But she is urging all those working with children to be on the alert as England heads into the next lockdown.
“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.
Continuing restrictions may be hampering face-to-face visits but while these children are out of sight, they should never be out of mind,” she adds.
Children’s minister Vicky Ford said in response:
“Every death or harm is tragic but harms to young babies are deeply heart wrenching.
New parents have faced unprecedented challenges so we have asked children’s services to prioritise support for families with new babies and especially those families who had already faced difficulties before Covid.”
A spokesperson for the Government said they had invested £4.3bn in councils to meet the additional demands being made of them.