Social Work With Children And Families In The Pandemic (Part Two)

Social work with children and families in the pandemic (part two) – sharing knowledge about doing and thinking differently in uncertain times

Published: 04/05/2020

Author: Professor Brid Featherstone and Susannah Bowyer

We invite participants to join a second virtual practice forum on 26 May at 13.00-14.30. The aim is to bring together social workers, practice supervisors, Principal Social Workers, Heads of Service to enable further shared learning on social work in the pandemic. Please email events@researchinpractice.org.uk to book a place.

In mid-April, we held two virtual practice forums inviting those interested to join small group discussions and share learning on themes raised in the recent blog on social work with children and families in the pandemic. This second piece looks at the knowledge shared as well as doing and thinking differently in uncertain times.

Twenty people participated, including senior managers, child and family social workers and community workers. While mainly from England, an international perspective was provided by participants from the Republic of Ireland. These discussions – and the inquiry that informed Brid’s blog – explored practice issues, communicating with children and ideas about what the future might look like in terms of practising differently.

This blog is the next step in bringing together and sharing knowledge to support this intense period of learning for child and family services. The themes and practical ideas from these conversations resonate strongly with those shared in recent knowledge exchange discussions in Ireland and New Zealand, and with other forums hosted by Research in Practice and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory – links to the write-ups from these conversations are at the bottom of this blog post.  

Suddenly what was not doable is doable

Practicing remotely raises concerns around families’ limited access to hardware (smart phones and computers), internet (broadband, phone and electricity credit) and the various platforms for virtual social interaction. Some authorities initiated strategic responses to these issues long before the lock down – such as providing tablets to reduce the digital gap between children and their peers at school. They have built upon this approach to clean up, add credit and offer used smart phones (either phones not in use by the authority or see the industry initiative DevicesDotNow) to children and families and to their own staff where required.

There’s a strong thread of positivity about virtual communication with young people, with many practitioners sharing stories of better than usual responses to contact through digital platforms – for many young people their preferred means of communication. This is something people are keen to retain in relational work in the future.

A great deal of creative thinking is going on about virtual methods to enable meaningful birth family contact for individual children, families and placement situations. This was the focus of a webinar and blog post by Beth Neil and colleagues in early April. These set out some key principles for digital family time and remind us that digital contact doesn’t have to be ‘live’ to be meaningful. Our participants noted that infants and young children who might normally engage actively with family time may not be coping well with online methods. In these instances filming short video clips showing the child doing everyday things might work well to keep connections with birth parents or siblings. This might also help where relationships are currently too fractured for real time contact.

People in our discussions noted something of a levelling of power relationships here – in that practitioners and the families they work with are grappling with similar issues – about retaining contact with wider family and managing life in lock down with children. We know that sharing of common experiences can mark a turning point in building a working relationship of trust with families (Scott et al 2018).

There was a view that for some families the lockdown provided a respite from the usual pressures of everyday life, as families slowed down and started talking to each other more. It is also important to note that the slowing down of service involvement in some families’ lives may provide respite too. Morris, Featherstone, Hill and Ward’s (2018) research showed how, for families with children with multiple needs and educational difficulties, interactions with a wide range of agencies can often be frustrating and anxiety provoking. Families found changing access and eligibility issues difficult to understand and struggled with being able to comply with multiple appointments and service demands.

What was not thinkable was thinkable

Creative responses to the ‘how’ of online practice were underpinned by a strong focus on the ‘why?’ People are re-thinking what can become ‘tick-box’ practice activities through questions such as – Whose needs are being met? Why this visit? What is the purpose of this interaction? To what extent can the safety and welfare of this child be ascertained in ways other than ‘talking’ to them or playing with them face to face?

Participants noted the important role foster parents can play in facilitating communication between social workers and children and between children and birth family and a subsequent blog by Irish social worker John Finn expands on this very well.

Practical issues about privacy, confidentiality and safety in communicating with children and families online need careful consideration. The report from a recent knowledge exchange between 70 participants in Aotearoa/New Zealand sets out some excellent direct practice ideas. Participants in our forums also spoke about more supportive relationships within their professional teams as people checked in online, held social events and desisted from simply sending emails to each other.

Holding people in mind, helping and supporting

Participants noted the shift in focus towards responding to families’ immediate needs in lockdown. A wide range of workers and agencies are involved, with some indications that the boundaries between family support and child protection are being blurred as need becomes more acute and more apparent. For staff being redeployed into frontline work, participants noted that families’ poverty and need had been ‘an eye opener’ and expressed the concern that we must come out of this pandemic a kinder society and address the social and health inequalities that it is exposing so starkly.

A number of participants noted that some families considered ‘hard to engage’ by Children’s Services were responding much more positively to practical contact – bringing food parcels or electricity credit, for instance – than they would have previously done to visits focused on monitoring. This resonates strongly with research (such as Morris et al 2018 and Scott et al 2018) about successfully engaging with people whose experiences make them wary of professional involvement in their family lives.

‘Providing swift practical support to meet immediate needs demonstrates that practitioners can be relied upon to take families’ concerns seriously, and allow them to move on to exploring the more entrenched difficulties.’ (Baynes, Bowyer and Godar 2019).

The experience of being ‘held in mind’, of professionals responding to a families’ immediate and concerns and needs might well be the basis of building stronger relationships of trust in future. As Becca Dove describes it:

‘Our focus on community in Camden family early help is to try and make sure families have someone to watch over them, not when (or indeed because) professionals feel worried, but someone to be there in the good times and someone to turn to in the dark and difficult moments, letting them know the world is ok.’

Rethinking risk? Risks from whom and what?

Some participants spoke about how this recalibration towards family support was enabled through strong collaboration between local agencies to ensure frequent contact where there were safeguarding and protection concerns. One participant described daily check-ins with families, either by social care or school staff, and strong use of video conferencing by these local partners to keep up to date on progress or emerging concerns.

Nevertheless, there was a considerable degree of anxiety about children not being seen by anyone outside the family. Although many local authorities have been moving away from risk averse cultures towards those that aim to work with ‘safe uncertainty’, the current context where children could be completely out of sight is far too uncertain and very anxiety provoking.  

A discussion recalling a period in the early 1990s when a year-long strike meant that families had no social work visits (although there was a service for emergencies and other agencies continued their work) provided food for thought. In one authority, when social workers returned to work and reviewed the cases, all were removed from the child protection register as the previous presenting issues were considered resolved, although the lack of planning for children and young people in care did have immediate and long term consequences.

SW2020Covid-19 is an online journal set up to provide space to reflect on lessons being learned in the pandemic. David Orr’s article notes that his team has not received lots of call for urgent assistance and reflects, ‘it may just be that we have underestimated the coping abilities and resilience of those we support. While there is a risk of ‘minimum intervention’ being taken to an extreme, there are also risk associated with undue interference and 'over-servicing’.

But we do need to assess!

The most positive examples of online engagement were in the context of already existing relationships between practitioners and families – ‘holding’ the situation. Relationship making and assessing new situations are much harder to transpose into virtual contexts. Moreover, as pre-birth assessments demonstrate most vividly, family situations are not static, change is inevitable, and highly skilled work is required to assess strengths and risks in such situations. The consequences of the decisions taken, or not taken now, could be long lasting indeed. 

Concluding remarks

The virtual forums were valued by participants as a space to reflect, share learning and support each other in the current context is vital as we all make sense of our shared vulnerability to illness and death. These conversations and those we have linked to above all contribute to the kind of ‘rapid learning environment’ that @tobyjlowe and others are blogging and discussing on Twitter (also see this blog) – gathering learning, drawing out insight and sharing back to help make things better.

Useful links

Susannah B Brid F

Professor Brid Featherstone and Susannah Bowyer

Professor Brid Featherstone works within the Behavioural and Social Sciences department at the University of Huddersfield. Susannah Bowyer is the Assistant Director of Research in Practice for children and families.