Emergency coronavirus rules mean children in care will get less contact from their social worker - and charities fear the lockdown will push some into mental health crisis.
Children’s minister Vicky Ford used executive powers to push through a series of temporary changes to adoption and children’s law last week.
The temporary regulations mean that instead of every six weeks, social workers can ‘visit’ - by phone or video call - only “as soon as reasonably is practicable”.
Fostering panels, which match children with registered foster carers, have been scrapped, as has the need for care plans to be independently reviewed every six months.
All are seen as key, regular interventions which offer young people in the care system a voice.
The changes also temporarily mean adult care-givers working in homes do not need to be qualified.
The government says the shift was necessary to help local authorities cope with social distancing measures.
But Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of the charity Become, says neither the sector nor councils have lobbied for the changes.
She said: “We are hearing from young people who are really struggling.
“Some children in care have already been through trauma and they may have existing mental health problems. We are finding that social distancing is having a significant impact on them.
“Children in care need extra support during this time not less.
“As far as we are aware, local authorities are not struggling to meet their existing duties.
“Relaxing rules around children’s rights should be a last resort but it seems we have gone there straightaway and that these changes have happened without consultation.”
The rules, which included dropping some Ofsted inspections of children’s care homes, are expected to stay in place until September and Ford and will be subject to “continuous review”.
The changes were brought in immediately, she said, because “waiting 21 days will put extraordinary pressure on local authorities, providers and services” during the outbreak, she said.
Shadow children’s minister Tulip Siddiq has written to Ford to ask for assurances that the changes are time-limited.
Siddiq told HuffPost UK: “Vulnerable children, children in care and care leavers face huge challenges in this crisis. Many will be under even more pressure at this time, so it is vital that their needs continue to be met.
“Of course we understand the huge pressures that councils are under at the moment and the need to prioritise the most urgent obligations to those in need. But we must ensure that this significant relaxation of councils’ duties to protect vulnerable children does not increase the risk of harm and is strictly temporary.”
There are also fears that vital data tracking youngsters’ route through the care system could be lost.
Siddiq added: “The government must collect and publish information about any statutory obligations that aren’t being met and assess the impact. If these changes led to bad outcomes for the most vulnerable, ministers must immediately reconsider their approach.”
It comes as fear grow for around two million children in England who face a range of vulnerabilities, including those exposed to domestic abuse or with parents who are mentally ill/have substance abuse problems and those living in cramped housing and domestic abuse.
Despite schools remaining open for children deemed to be vulnerable, it is thought between 5% and 10% of this group still attend.
Children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, sounded the alarm on Sunday, saying more must be done by authorities to stay in touch.
When approached for comment, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our first priority remains the safety of vulnerable children. Schools and early years settings remain open for them to attend, where appropriate so that they are protected.
“However, these are unprecedented times and we know that this may put additional pressure on children’s social services. While the vast majority of statutory duties remain unchanged, we have reviewed our regulations to allow some temporary flexibility, to be used where absolutely necessary, to help reduce pressure on the system and enable children’s services to continue to support vulnerable children during the coronavirus outbreak.”