Child Protection And Social Distancing (Small)

Child protection and social distancing: Improving the capacity of social workers to keep children safe during the pandemic

Published: 08/06/2020

Author: Professor Harry Ferguson, Professor Sarah Pink and Dr Laura Kelly

The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is presenting governments, social work leaders, managers and child protection practitioners with unique challenges.

Our new research project is exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child protection practice and children and families, with the aim of improving the capacity of social workers to keep children safe in a period of institutionalised social distancing. The 15 month research project is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the UK Research and Innovation call for studies that can contribute to understanding and alleviating the social impact of the pandemic. 

As our previous research has shown, a crucial way child protection work is achieved is by social workers getting close to children, especially on home visits. Children are not only seen but ‘held’ physically and emotionally and the use of touch is central to effective child protection work. Given the challenges raised by the pandemic, Palgrave / Macmillan Education have made available free this chapter on the use of touch from Ferguson’s book Child Protection Practice.

Research shows that social workers and family support workers also help parents by developing close relationships with them that involve immersing themselves in their lives and the routines of the family. The primary research question for the study is:

How can practices that have relied on achieving closeness keep children safe and help families in a period of institutionalised social distancing at a time of increased stress, poverty and risks of domestic abuse and other harms within families?

Building on our existing research on effective child protection, home visits and on the use of digital technology in the home and everyday life we will identify areas of concern, and advise on effective responses. To achieve this the research will focus on the work of four (anonymous) local authorities in England and we will work with our project partners Research in Practice and the British Association of Social Workers.

The picture of how the pandemic is affecting social work and child protection is fast-moving, but since mid-March 2020 when the country went into COVID-19 lockdown, social work organisations have produced practice guidelines that reflect social distancing recommendations. A vital research agenda has opened up about how such guidance is being interpreted and implemented in practice, and a common approach being taken is for those children considered to be at medium or high-risk of harm to receive either ‘virtual home visits’ via video calls, or in-person home visits – with or without personal protective equipment (PPE) – or both.

In the coming months the experiences and practices of a sample of social workers and managers based in four local authorities in England will be explored through interviews and other digital ethnographic methods developed by Sarah Pink. We will focus on how children and families are being worked with through in-person and virtual home visits during the pandemic, including the availability and use of PPE. We will also explore social worker’s experiences of their organisations and maintaining social distancing by working almost exclusively from their own homes. Using a qualitative longitudinal approach that has proved effective in making sense of relational practice, detailed data will be gathered on social work with selected families in the months ahead, which will draw out the challenges involved in sustaining relationships and effective child protection over the longer term during COVID-19. We also hope to be able to interview a sample of parents to establish the family’s experience of social work practice, both in-person and virtual, during the pandemic.

As well as producing academic papers, the research will seek to inform understandings of the impact of COVID-19 on risks to children and families and improve the capacity of social workers to keep children safe while the pandemic is ongoing through regular research briefings on emerging findings. 

Our project partners Research in Practice and the British Association of Social Workers will work closely with us to disseminate findings and scale up of the impact of the research. We are excited to be planning a webinar with the Research in Practice team on 30 September 2020 – more details to follow – and we will be publishing a series of blogs on this platform. These will help inform understandings of practice during the COVID-19 crisis and make recommendations for the future regarding what can be learned from how practice adjusted and innovated during the pandemic. For instance, communicating with children, conducting home visits, helping families and the uses of digital technology. All information will be available on our regularly updated project website. If you would like to know more about the project and findings, or would like to make contact to share information, our contact details are below.

Professor Harry Ferguson, Professor Sarah Pink and Dr Laura Kelly

Professor Harry Ferguson is a Professor of Social Work at the Department of Social Work and Social Care, University of Birmingham ( Professor Sarah Pink is the Director of Emerging Technologies Research Lab, Monash University, Australia ( Dr Laura Kelly is a Research Fellow at the Department of Social Work and Social Care, University of Birmingham (