In our research we have been following the same sample of social workers in four local authorities now for over three months, gathering their views and experiences of the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on their work. We have also begun interviewing parents in the same cases we are shadowing and discussing with practitioners.
As shown in an earlier briefing, our emerging findings suggest that COVID-19, the lockdown that began on 23 March 2020, and having to socially distance from children and other family members, has disrupted child protection making it more challenging for practitioners to safeguard and be helpful. But what can and has been achieved, despite and because of restrictions to normal services? The emerging research findings show that since the start of the pandemic children’s social care have been innovative and have improvised in creative ways that, if sustained post-pandemic, could renew practice for the better and enhance the lives of children and families.
Social distancing hasn’t stopped social workers and family support workers from being relational and finding ways of being effective and achieving what might be called non-physical closeness to some families. Social workers generally feel they have been able to helpful to families in need and the welfare and support dimension of their work has increased. As one social worker proudly put it, I am ‘definitely doing more supportive work than before’.
Getting help to families has been easier and quicker because during lockdown the usual bureaucratic complexities of applying for vouchers to use food banks, for instance, have been removed. As one worker said: ‘the number of like food bank referrals I have done has been the highest it has ever been and problems with like gas and electric have been numerous’. Some social workers, especially in referral and assessment where new cases dropped by up to a half, have had more time available to do this kind of work. Yet it is not just about the time available but due to a redefinition of role with greater emphasis on the caring, welfare, aspects. The pandemic has brought to the fore power relations and structural inequalities and opened up possibilities for a social model of child protection and an ethics of critical practice that tackles head on the effects of poverty, racism and other injustice (Featherstone et al, 2018; Keddell, 2020).
Outdoor and mobile practice
While going into homes has continued where it is regarded as absolutely necessary, a key way that COVID-19 infection risks are being managed is by children and parents being seen more often in other places by doing doorstep and garden visits, where a two metre gap is maintained. We have also been told of cases where social workers have observed children through windows or over garden walls. The public nature of garden visits, and how easily talk can be overheard means that their value often rests on observation, on what can be seen and felt about children and their relationships with family members. In addition, practitioners report achieving emotional closeness to children by being able to be more free and playful with them in gardens.
A crucial development here is a shift away from the interior of the home being the primary and often only site where the children and family are seen. A consistent finding is that workers have gone on walks with young people and sometimes parents and used parks and other open spaces near family homes to walk, play or just be together in. When home visits are tense, using these other environments provides new opportunities for reflection and discussion. For instance, one social worker along with a co-worker arranged a ‘walking visit’ with a family whom they had been intensively supporting via telephone and video call during the lockdown period. They walked and spoke separately to a mother and her two teenage children in a ‘woody foresty area’ near to the family home:
‘We found that with the young people…they felt more relaxed in that open space rather than sitting in a home and sitting in a living room and you’re talking face-to-face with them. I think they felt more relaxed...didn’t feel so oppressed being in the home and the tensions that were in the home. They felt more relaxed being in that open space and they were able to share a lot more.’
Walking alongside children and other family members is felt to offer a form of ‘side-by-side’ rather than ‘face-to-face’ communication that is highly productive, since people accessing servies often disclose more when on the move (Ferguson, 2016). These are not entirely new ways of mobile working (Jeyasingham, 2018), but their significance has increased during the pandemic.
The changing use of time
There is a general sense that time spent with children and families has reduced during lockdown in that in person home visits have been less frequent and shorter, in order to prevent transmission of the virus. However, the time that has been spent with families has often been in non-traditional ways and spread out more over a range of contacts, which take place through various formats. This fits with the dramatic increase in the use of video and telephone audio communications and it has become quite common for families to be spoken to frequently and even everyday. What we have seen is the emergence of shorter, frequent ‘check-in’ communications which are followed up with longer more substantial meetings. Practitioners are sharing a lot with us about how they have learned from greater use of digital platforms and email how to use time more efficiently.
Hybrid practice: Integrating face-to-face, digital and humane practice
A striking feature of the development of practice since lockdown is the integration of a variety of modes of communication and ways of relating. Elsewhere we provide examples of casework that a uses a hybrid approach combining kindness, support and other innovative features of COVID-19 practice by seeing families in person, mostly on the doorstep or in gardens and on the screen, most commonly using WhatsApp video, including sending photos. Despite maintaining physical distancing social workers’ narratives suggest they are getting emotionally close to some families and establishing meaningful relationships with the infants, older children and parents. While they cannot for instance hold a baby physically like they would have pre-pandemic, they are holding them and their parents ‘in mind’ and this helps them to establish a trusting relationship that can help to heal past traumas (Megele, 2015). This relationship based practice appears to be having a positive impact and supporting young people and parents to develop and change, a view that has been confirmed for us by some parents we have interviewed for the research.
It is vitally important that the welfare approach, critical practice and creative, innovative ways of working that have served many children and families well since the start of the pandemic are reflected upon and, where possible, maintained as services emerge and develop post-lockdown. While some such work has been enabled by conditions that are unlikely to persist – such as reduced rates of referral to assessment teams – data collected during this period yield insights that have the potential to renew policy and practice over the longer-term and provide improved outcomes for children and families.