Action for Children key workers warn families at rock bottom, fearing worse to come in childhood crisis

  • Survey of charity’s frontline staff finds parents and children at breaking point – some suicidal – as families struggle to put food on the table, heat homes, afford bills – with some isolated new mums saying they wish they hadn’t had their babies this year.

  • With levels of domestic abuse rising in lockdown, workers fear many children are trapped at home, hidden from help.

  • Key workers call on Prime Minister to ‘come live and breathe what our families are going through’, warning children of all ages regressing in speech, behaviour, education and social skills.

  • Ahead of the Budget, Action for Children calls for Universal Credit uplift to be made permanent as its new analysis shows anything less will leave struggling families without support when they need it most.

After almost a year of unprecedented restrictions on family life, a new investigation by Action for Children reveals the UK’s most vulnerable children and parents are at rock bottom – as the charity pleads with the Prime Minister to tackle the country’s childhood crisis.

Action for Children carried out interviews with key workers representing 155 of its frontline services across the UK, including children’s centres, services for disabled children and young carers. The findings show huge concern about the mental health, finances and safeguarding of families they support, as well as fears for their future.


All staff were worried about the toll the crisis is having on parents’ mental health, describing them as “at their wits' end”, “exhausted”, and “unable to cope with a simmering pot of emotion and frustrations”. As well as being cut off from friends and family, many were reported to be struggling to cope with job losses, relationship breakdowns, home schooling and fears of catching the virus.

One described working with a parent who was suicidal: “She told me ‘I can’t cope, I can’t be here anymore’ – she’s a single parent with an older child with autism and additional needs. She can’t access school for long at the moment … and is so alone... it’s just so sad.” Another reported new mums left isolated without support networks tell her “they wish they hadn’t had their babies [this year].”

Anxiety was reported as one of the main issues facing children and young people – with workers describing how many told them they are anxious to go outside, of bringing the virus home to their families, and of returning to school after being isolated from friends.

Another described an extreme case of a disabled child under 10 who talked about suicide because of the pressure: “[They] didn’t want to live. We’ve arranged a long-term plan but what could have happened to them? This was a parent we never met, they just called us.”


Nearly all (93%) of the charity’s frontline staff said families’ finances had deteriorated since the first lockdown and a similar number (90%) reported parents were worried about having enough money to stay afloat both now and in the coming months.

Families were reported being most worried about not being able to afford food (93%), followed by heating (66%), then household bills (61%). These were followed by technology (56%) and clothes (41%).

More than half (58%) said they did not think Government was providing adequate financial support to low-income families.

One key worker said: “So many more families are out of work and with the children at home there’s the increase in costs. Families can't afford warm clothes for children, we’ve spent emergency funds on beds for children sleeping on the floor [and] these are not the most vulnerable in society, they are newly in need because of the pandemic.” Another said: “Families who were buying extra things in their weekly shop to contribute to a foodbank are now relying on foodbanks themselves.”


With many schools and services still closed – and lockdown restrictions causing a rise in domestic abuse – many workers were concerned about the safety of at-risk children, hidden from professionals such as teachers and doctors who would normally see them.

Three-quarters (76%) of workers fear there are children who are not being reached by external agencies because of the pandemic. And more than half of workers (56%) said they have seen an increase in vulnerable children needing support. 

One said: “Safeguarding issues go under the radar… we don’t see the signs and symptoms when we work virtually… you miss the water cooler moments, those observations.” Another described the difficulty in proving neglect of a child without observations: “The parents will just say ‘yes, everything is ok’. It takes a village to raise a child, and the village is missing.”


The overwhelming majority (80%) of those surveyed considered childhood to be in crisis and that the pandemic will have a negative impact on children unless there was urgent investment in children’s services and support back into education. Many have witnessed children of all ages regress in speech, behaviour, education and social skills, with one worker echoing many: “We'll be in a desperate situation and it’ll take years to catch up – they’ll be a lost generation.”

One called on the Prime Minister to “come live and breathe what our families are going through” and another for him to “take 24 hours out of your life and live how these parents have lived for the last year. In these tiny flats with no food and no gardens and five children.”


With a decision on whether to extend the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift beyond April expected to be announced in the March Budget, a separate analysis by the charity has shown that unless the uplift is made permanent, struggling families claiming for the first time will miss out on crucial financial help at a time when the furlough scheme will have ended, and high unemployment is expected. If the uplift is extended by three months, at least 2.5 million families with children currently on Universal Credit or Working Tax Credits would miss out on a combined total of £1.95 billion across the 2021-22 financial year (equal to £780 per family). The same number of families would miss out on £1.3 billion across the same period if the uplift is extended by six months (£520 per family).

Action for Children’s director of policy and campaigns, Imran Hussain, said: “It’s been nearly a year since the first lockdown began – 12 long months of more families facing hardship, struggling to cope and of childhoods gone.

“Sadly, in what’s become a dossier of despair, our frontline staff tell us children and parents are at rock bottom going without food, heating, clothes and essentials - and the pandemic is making things even worse. With unemployment rising and fears for the future when the furlough scheme ends, more families are facing financial hardship and vulnerable children are paying the price.

“There is no faster way to push up poverty than by taking over £1,000 a year out of the pockets of the poorest families in the country. Many of these families are working families doing their best to hold their heads above water after a nightmare year that has seen hours cut and wage packets slashed. The Prime Minister must make the uplift to Universal Credit permanent if families are to stand a fighting chance of recovery.”


Kate and her husband have two children, Lucy and Sam, aged six and two. Sam has received speech support from Action for Children during the pandemic.

The family runs a café in a seaside town which has been affected by public health restrictions during the crisis. The financial impact was immediate because March to April is normally the café’s busiest period.

They applied for a government business grant, which “did help a little but not a lot”. Following that, they decided to make a claim for Universal Credit, but that also left them unable to cover their costs.

Kate said: “Eventually we had to go onto Universal Credit. I think people think that you go on that by choice and that you can live off it, but it covered our rent and then we didn’t have any more money [left over].”

“…Then, after we applied…it then took us eight weeks before we got any money, and that whole time we didn’t even know if we would get it… It wasn’t about how we, as parents, were going to eat, but [instead] we didn’t want the children to notice anything different. You just kind of want things to be as normal as possible [for the children].”

As the pandemic continued and the restrictions remained in place, the family’s financial pressures intensified. When schools re-opened, they had to request a school uniform grant. And then when they shut again, they couldn’t afford the resources needed to home-school their children. “…We didn’t have a laptop or tablet or computer. We have smart phones, but the kids can’t learn off of them.”

Over the course of the crisis, Action for Children has provided the family with food vouchers and a tablet for online home learning.  

The experience has affected Kate and her husband’s wellbeing. “We were so embarrassed; we still haven’t been able to tell our family how much we are struggling… it’s hard to explain what this last year has been like. People have such stigma around those on Universal Credit, it’s not as easy and straight forward as people make out.

“We’ll be opening the café when lockdown lifts, but it sounds as though it will be difficult for us to build back as we don’t have an outside area and as it’s a small café, keeping to two-metre distancing means we can only cater for a fraction of our normal customers.”

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