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Churches face a potential ‘tidal wave’ of disclosures from children and adults as they reopen their buildings for public worship, experts have warned, and measures being taken to prevent the spread of the virus could make it harder to help people who have suffered at home.

As the lockdown restrictions are lifted, more children and young people are heading back to schools and churches are making plans to get people back together. Experts are suggesting many young people will need support from psychologists when they go back to school due to the disruption caused by the lockdown, and this could well be the same for other settings including churches, youth groups and community projects such as food banks.

These problems have been caused by issues such as a dramatic rise in domestic abuse, loss of contact with family and friends, lack of exercise, or issues from time spent online. The Guardian reported that school closures 'will trigger a UK child mental health crisis' with many charities warning they expect domestic abuse calls to spike post-lockdown.

Prof Cathy Creswell, of the University of Oxford, who has recently undertaken a study of 10,000 families in the UK said mental health services were expecting "a tsunami of referrals" when lockdown restrictions were lifted. “We need to provide support for these children and even if that comes at a cost, we should be aware that the longer-term cost to the country will be far greater if this issue is not addressed now.”

Prof Dame Til Wykes, of King’s College London, said the problems for schoolchildren were part of a national crisis that was affecting all age groups. “Figures released last week by the Office for National Statistics revealed that 19 million adults in Great Britain are suffering from high levels of anxiety,” she said. “A lot of people are going to experience intense mental health difficulties and will need specialist treatment.”

When churches and youth groups reopen they could see similar problems among their young people and vulnerable adults. To help them adequately prepare for this increase, here are three questions churches and youth groups could be asking themselves as they plan for the return of children, young people and vulnerable adults over the next six months.

  1. Are we ready for an increase in disclosures of abuse or mental health concerns?
    It’s important that organisations plan and prepare their response for this expected rise in disclosures. This should be discussed by the leadership; those working with children, young people, and vulnerable adults; and those who have a specific responsibility for safeguarding such as the safeguarding lead. Is your training in how to spot the indicators of abuse and how to response to disclosures up to date? Are all those that may need to respond familiar with your organisation's processes and procedures? Are relevant staff or team members in place (consider furlough arrangements)? Do you have relevant local contact details for statutory reporting?
  1. Do we have someone fulfilling the role of safeguarding coordinator or lead?
    The first action for some churches to improve safeguarding may be to appoint at least one person to take the lead on safeguarding within your organisation. There are three main functions for a safeguarding lead:
    • Act as an advocate.
    • Act independently in reporting concerns of abuse.
    • To oversee the preparation and implementation of the safeguarding policy.
    A safeguarding lead does not need to be an expert in child or adult protection. That can be left to the statutory agencies and Thirtyone:eight can also help. They just need to be vigilant, ensure the right policies and procedures are in place, and that only suitable people are allowed to work with vulnerable groups. A member of the Trustee or governing board/leadership should also have responsibility for supporting and overseeing this vital area.
  2. Have we updated our safeguarding policy with any Covid-19 specific guidance?
    Writing and implementing a safeguarding policy sends a powerful message to parents, children, visitors, as well as those intent on harm, that safeguarding children, young people and vulnerable adults is taken seriously within the organisation. It also helps protect your workers by giving clear boundaries and ways of working. It will be important to review and update your policy in relation to Covid-19 and any changes as organisations continue to expand their online presence, as well as help people in self-isolation. Changes may include making sure Zoom meeting passwords are not put out on public social media, and that records are kept of what activity is being undertaken that is outside your usual remit and by whom. Thirtyone:eight has a template policy available to members and additional support and training available to help you put your policy together.

Putting it all together

Churches and youth groups are in a unique place to help children, young people and vulnerable adults as they come back to school and church. With some thought and planning around safeguarding after lockdown, churches can ensure they have good practice in place. Making sure that workers know how to deal with disclosures of abuse and ensuring a safeguarding coordinator is in place, along with an up-to-date safeguarding policy, churches can avoid feeling overwhelmed by issues that have become apparent during the time their congregations have been apart.

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