• Referrals to some children’s sexual assault centres have dropped by more than 50 per cent
  • Children’s safeguarding referrals have also seen a 50 per cent drop nationally during the covid-19 pandemic

Vulnerable children have become “invisible” amid the coronavirus pandemic, leading clinicians have warned, following a dramatic reduction in referrals to child sexual assault services.

Consultants from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have told HSJ they have major concerns after seeing referrals to children’s sexual assault services and safeguarding referrals drop by more than 50 per cent.

Dr Liz Marder, who is treasurer of the RCPCH and consultant community paediatrician at Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, said: “Our numbers have gone down considerably, with less than half the number of referrals we would normally expect to see in March and early April…I think it’s unlikely that the same level of harm is not still happening.”

Dr Lisa Kauffmann, a faculty lead at RCPCH and consultant community paediatrician for Manchester University Foundation Trust, said there was a similar trend in Greater Manchester.

She said: “We normally expect referrals to be lower in school holidays so some fall in referrals doesn’t surprise us. However, the very dramatic fall in referrals we are now seeing is of great concern.”

When asked about why the drop off had been so dramatic Dr Kauffmann said: “The theory would be that the children are invisible at the moment. They do not have access to the people who can normally look out for them, such as teachers and others who they would normally disclose to and who would make the referrals to social care.”

Referrals to sexual assault services and safeguarding referrals most commonly come through services such as health visiting or through a children’s school, they said.

Dr Kauffman also raised concerns that waiting lists for community paediatric services across [the country] will increase due to the pandemic.

She said: “To be honest many community paediatric departments across the UK struggle with waiting lists in “normal” times, and this is making that worse.

“I think there’s anxiety amongst community paediatricians about the number of children who are not getting the help they need, and how we will best support them when the situation changes.”

Dr Marder said waiting lists for assessment of ADHD and autism were already in excess of a year in some places. She said although a large part of assessing a child with neurodevelopmental difficulties such as autism is gathering information, assessments can’t be completed without spending time with the child.

Within Nottinghamshire some buildings normally used for community paediatric clinics appointments have been converted in to covid-19 treatment spaces. This means some face to face clinics could not be continued even if they wanted them to, Dr Marder added.

Junior doctors working in both Dr Marder and Dr Kauffman’s community paediatric teams were also transferred to support acute services.