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Let’s make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year for all children


22 Dec 2021

EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne highlights the pressures facing vulnerable children and families over the Christmas period, and outlines two crucial changes that can be made to tackle these issues all year round.

This article was originally published by the Times Red Box.

This Christmas, the problems some vulnerable children face will probably only get worse, as families spend more time together and financial pressures reach boiling point. As we’ll no doubt hear in Christmas songs in shops and on TV adverts, for some, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. For too many others, however, it simply is not.

While many of us enjoy opening presents, indulging in a special meal and spending time together as a family, for those without a stable and supportive home, and where finances and relationships are stretched, Christmas can be an isolating and difficult time. As our own thoughts turn to home and family during the festive season, we cannot ignore the risks facing children living in far more vulnerable situations.

For some, these risks are very serious indeed. We calculate that more than 16,000 children will be victims of domestic abuse over the Christmas fortnight alone. That’s more than 400,000 over the course of a year. This past year, nearly 260,000 children were identified as children in need because of domestic abuse in their home.

Similarly, many children are in homes where there is problematic alcohol or drug misuse, or serious and continuing issues with parents’ mental health. Nearly 185,000 children were identified as children in need on account of parental drug or alcohol problems, and more than 157,000 owing to their parents’ poor mental health. These numbers are worryingly high.

Beyond the immediate risks to their health and wellbeing, growing up facing a range of persistent adversities can have a huge, negative impact on a young person’s future. A person who has a parent who misuses drugs or alcohol is themselves more than two and a half times more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol in adolescence and adulthood.

A child experiencing mental health problems when they’re young is two to three times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs. The use of physical punishment in early childhood is associated with conduct problems when children are older.

And children who have experienced domestic abuse are significantly more likely to experience abuse in their own adult relationships, to misuse drugs or alcohol, and to have lower levels of wellbeing.

These impacts are not only felt by the individuals themselves, but by families, communities and across society, as local groups and stretched public services are left to provide crisis care. Providing more and better early support to prevent these problems occurring, or deal with the consequences before they become more serious, makes clear good sense for all of us.

To better help these children — not just this Christmas, but all year round, two crucial changes are needed.

First, as the House of Lords public services committee recently suggested, a national strategy on child vulnerability, supported by substantial, long-term investment in early intervention services, would ensure that children continue to be put front and centre of future decisions about spending and services.

The committee’s report showed a decline of 48 per cent in early intervention funding, “while money spent on later, costlier, and higher-intensity interventions — such as youth justice, looked after children’s services and safeguarding — increased by 34 per cent to £7.6 billion”.

Second, we need to ensure that we are investing in the services and support for vulnerable children and families that stand the best chance of working to improve their lives.

In some of these areas, domestic abuse for example, we still don’t know enough about what works to support the children affected. In other areas, such as intensive home visiting in the early years or family therapy, we do know what can work, but the right options are not available widely enough.

The National Audit Office recently pointed out that just 8 per cent of spending on big government projects is evaluated robustly, while 64 per cent is not evaluated at all. We need central government to invest in finding out what forms of support are effective, because none of us can afford to spend precious time and money on providing programmes and services that are unlikely to really help.

By investing in the best approaches now and over the year ahead, we can ensure that Christmas next year may be, for children in some of the most vulnerable households, once again the most wonderful time of the year.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is CEO at What Works for Early Intervention and Children's Social Care.