Children face Christmas 'cooped up' with abusers amid rise in helpline calls

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NSPCC warns of ‘pressure cooker elements’ after figures show increase in incidents since the start of lockdown

A child sits next to a Christmas tree - vulnerable young people face increased risk of neglect or abuse over the holiday period.
The cumulative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic mean children at risk of neglect or abuse are facing increased challenges this Christmas.
The cumulative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic mean children at risk of neglect or abuse are facing increased challenges this Christmas.
Sun 13 Dec 2020 02.00 EST

The NSPCC is warning that this Christmas poses an unprecedented challenge for many British children, with new data from the charity revealing it has received more than 31,000 calls since April from adults anxious about child abuse or neglect.

Its chief executive, Peter Wanless, said the cumulative impact of the effects of the pandemic meant young people would be “cooped up” with their abusers over the festive period.

Wanless told the Observer: “Christmas is always a challenge but this one is compounded. There’s some real pressure-cooker elements to what some young people are going to be facing.”

The charity’s helpline has so far received a record 31,359 contacts from adults concerned about child abuse or neglect since early on in the first lockdown, with callers reporting frequent arguments, households with addiction problems or children seen wearing dirty clothes.

Among a number of disquieting trends caused by the pandemic was a rise in physical violence against children, reversing a long-term trend where hitting young people was increasingly viewed as socially unacceptable.

Analysis of police-recorded offences earlier this year found four times as many adolescents were physically abused compared with younger children in England, with incidents against 11- to 18-year-olds soaring during the coronavirus lockdown.

The observations come amid calls for Airbnb UK to offer spare accommodation over the Christmas and new year period as refuge for victims of domestic violence, which spikes over the festive season. The Lib Dems, who are promoting the idea, said the gesture had proved to be a huge success in Ireland.

Wanless also warned that the threat from online abusers magnified the risk for children stuck at home. “Live streaming is an increasing risk, and the trading of films and live footage of young people is a big new area of abuse,” he said.

The government is due to publish its long-delayed online harms bill, which aims to target internet companies that fail to tackle harmful behaviour of various types on their sites. Wanless called on the government to include serious financial and criminal sanctions against tech giants who breach their “duty of care”.

“In the meantime you’ve got all kinds of services and spaces online where young people are at the mercy of predatory adults who are going to have more time on their hands over Christmas to take advantage,” he said.

Most data has tracked a rise in abuse since the lockdown began in late March. Last week, the NSPCC revealed that analysis of police data showed 23,529 child cruelty and neglect offences were recorded in 2019-20, an increase of 53% in three years.

Following the start of the spring lockdown, an average of 50 children a day turned to the NSPCC’s Childline after suffering abuse.

Wanless is worried that as support networks for children disappear over Christmas this will contribute to a rise in concerns. He said: “Although we are beyond the most extreme moments of lockdown when we were seeing very significant rises in the number of calls and contacts around physical abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence and its impact on children, there is every likelihood some of those issues will pick up over Christmas.”

Wanless added: “When we went into the pandemic, we were worried about rising levels of abuse and neglect, and we were worried particularly about the risks children were facing online. The pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated some of those risks.”