For proactive practitioners, services and organisations this pandemic has offered a chance to ‘spring clean our services’.
On the 26 May we held our third open virtual forum on social work with children and families in the pandemic. Led by Susannah Bowyer, Research in Practice, and Brid Featherstone, University of Huddersfield, with the aim of supporting knowledge exchange about doing and thinking differently.
Participants from England and Scotland included colleagues from local authorities and the independent and third sectors from work contexts in child protection, youth exploitation, disability and children in care.
A time of possibility and potential
While there is a continuing need to ‘stay alert’ (as they say) to the challenges and the ethical and human rights issues raised by practice in lockdown, the overriding theme, as in previous forums (both ours and those held by others), was of people experiencing potential arising from shifts in practice prompted by the need to work remotely and maintain physical distancing.
Many agreed that, with customary responses unavailable, the purpose of practice activities became a focus of reflection. One noted that her default, when she received a call from a family was to rush out and try and fix things. The restrictions meant she had to now stop and think and, crucially, mull over what was needed with the family. This reflective approach was echoed by others although not all – one participant recounted being told to ensure every visit took place as planned but by virtual means, without reviewing the purpose of these. A blended approach involving both face-to-face and virtual communication was reported to be working well in a safeguarding service working with parents and children and young people in relation to extra-familial harm and exploitation. Participants said they are not using SI445, the statutory instrument introduced by the government to allow local authorities to reduce contacts with children in care. In fact, they said that time that they would have hitherto spent travelling is more likely to be spent now in engaging with children, young people and families.
This group, like others, reflected on responses of families, carers and children. These included:
- Some children in foster care saying they feel ‘more in control’ when speaking on the phone to family members than they do when meeting in a contact centre.
- Feelings of control were also noted by some families attending virtual child protection case conferences as they no longer have to physically enter a room full of professionals.
- Another person recounted that young people found seeing their social worker at home (on a video call) gave them a fuller sense of the worker as a person. It’s worth noting that for workers, this dissolving of work/home boundaries can raise issues that need careful consideration.
- These comments point to ways in which the situation can generate a sense of levelling between social workers, children, families and carers. Some foster carers are finding the increased levels of trust this more collaborative approach engenders ‘empowering’. ‘It’s forcing us to be more collaborative’ – to think together with families and carers about how to achieve the goals of planned visits/meetings. More collaborative relationships with parents were also noted where social workers requested their help to carry out virtual assessments of home conditions.
- For some children, phone calls are enabling more frequent communication with their social worker and a deepening relationship as a result. One participant reflected on experience working with Childline and the distinct skills need to work with children and young people over the phone. Another, with experience of working with deaf people pointed to this community’s wealth of knowledge that needs to be availed of when developing online communication.
- A number of examples were given of young people and families’ more ‘proactive accessing of support’. The youth exploitation team worker noted that ‘parents are loving the opportunity for more ad hoc WhatsApp conversations’. Another said that their authority’s data showed significantly increased attendance of young people at ‘returning home’ interviews conducted by phone.
- One reflection on this proactive engagement was that phone contact reduces the stigma of seeking social care support. ‘It’s more discreet’ to speak on the phone than walk into a social care office in the middle of town. In a world in which it is much more common to hear about people’s distrust or fear of contact with children’s social care, the idea that some families are empowered to actively seek support is refreshing.
- We heard both about reduced incidents of children going missing from foster care, and expanded opportunities for sharing family experiences, practical skills and time off the treadmill of school attendance and professional visits. ‘We need to help carers to maintain the ‘nurture bubble’ they have been able to build in this period’. Please see and circulate our survey investigating these themes.
But(!) ongoing and continuing challenges
- A key theme which needs further exploration is the fact that, for many children involved with services, schools are a source of stress and is not meeting their needs.
- Many disabled children and their families who don’t meet the threshold to access specialist services may be in contact with safeguarding, family support or child protection and awareness of their needs is poor – ‘this crisis has shown gaps and the need to move children with disabilities up the agenda’.
- Concerns about the detrimental impacts of lock down on mental health in a situation where acute lack of provision was already a big issue. Participants noted analysis of data from help-seeking sites indicated frequent reporting of eating disorders, exposure to domestic abuse and self-harming.
- As in previous forums inequality of access to technology and to sufficient wifi connectivity was raised - both in terms of families’ own resources and the responses of local authorities and national government. One local authority was noted to have made a significant investment in enabling families by providing tablets, laptops and phones but this was not the case more generally.
- Special guardians and kinship carers are often older relatives who lack both the resources and familiarity with using smart phone technology. This is a particular issue for those caring for children too young to be able to negotiate the technology themselves or support their carers with it. These issues highlight the need for poverty aware practice more generally. Just as we need to ensure families have the means to engage in virtual communication, how, in ‘normal times’ are we making sure that they have the transport or childcare they need to attend meetings?
- From the practice side, there is huge variability in the flexibility of local authority IT services, leading to a wide range of decisions about which online platforms workers may access in the course of their work. Engaging with legal proceedings remotely is very challenging for everyone but the issues for families are particularly difficult. More generally, independent advocacy for parents was recognised as a significant gap at all times, but, again, seen as a really problematic in current circumstances.
- The challenges of online exploitation have increased in this period.
Going forward: opportunities and challenges
For proactive practitioners, services and organisations this pandemic has offered a chance to ‘spring clean our services’. For others it shines a spotlight on shortcomings that are only exacerbated in current conditions. Some participants felt very positive about what had been learned and what could be carried forward. One authority was already working with parents, carers and children to build the council’s pandemic recovery plan and is compiling a dossier of what has been learned during lockdown.
The challenges will be considerable. Participants anticipated increased need for short term respite for parents and carers exhausted by lockdown responsibilities and the need for more carers for bereaved children who have lost their parents to COVID-19. Economic recession will drive more families into acute poverty and towards seeking support from early help and children in need services hollowed out by years of austerity.