I followed this up with a range of professional contacts across England. It offers a snapshot of a rapidly changing situation in which social workers, managers and academics recounted their own experiences as well as referencing those of their partners, students and friends in other local authorities (it is hard therefore to give precise numbers).
I will be running two online seminars with Research in Practice to continue these conversations and enable shared learning. These will take place via Zoom at 1pm and 5.30pm on Thursday 16 April. Places will be limited to enable small group, virtual discussions. To register interest and request a place please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The importance of organisational context
‘I’m really relieved I’m here because in a struggling local authority with anxiety driven practice I feel it would be a nightmare’
Many commentators have reflected on how this pandemic, like other crises, exposes the frailties and strengths of existing arrangements. Some local authorities, it appears, were able to respond quickly to a very complex set of challenges, producing clear and accessible guidance, reinforcing workers’ views that their local authority was well run and responsive.
Others felt responses to the pandemic reflected a pre-existing culture that was risk averse and audit driven. For example, some workers felt pressurised into doing home visits by managers who were themselves working remotely and compared their situations unfavourably with those of their friends working in other local authorities. The initial lack of national guidance from the Department for Education may have compounded a sense among those who were less happy that they had been left to get on with it alone.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is essential
When asked to identify one key message, the availability of equipment from clothing to hand gels was considered essential for all visits, not just those where families were showing symptoms. Indeed, it was reported that some staff were now buying their own in a context where colleagues and foster parents were becoming ill. Where staff were still being asked to come into offices, there was a real concern about the lack of attention being paid to ensuring surfaces were being regularly cleaned.
The lack of PPE was an issue for all respondents but, in some local authorities, the lack of such equipment reinforced a sense that workers’ safety and wellbeing was not a primary concern.
We are all in this together
Even in the midst of very immediate concerns, most of those who responded expressed apprehension about the long-term consequences of the pandemic and of the emergency responses. Workers who were being told to stop visiting those on Children in Need plans were finding that implementing a plan in the immediate was difficult without visiting. They also feared that, as in other areas of work, problems might be being stored up for the future by curtailing sustained involvement.
In recent years attention has been drawn to the concept of ‘moral distress’ and its pertinence to social work practice. This arises if one action is preferred and seen as morally superior, but cannot be pursued due to factors outside the self. Instances evincing moral distress are extremely likely in the current context and should be factored in when considering staff and organisational wellbeing. The British Association of Social Workers are factoring this into their pandemic response activities. These activities include an ongoing survey of members’ experiences and the production of guidance for social workers.
The possibilities for practising differently
‘This really has changed the way we work’
Technology is being used for conferences and reviews and was seen very much as work in progress. It was noted how quickly both social workers and families are adapting. One interesting response suggested that ‘many families that would have avoided calls are answering their phones and are having very different conversations and thanking the social workers and support workers for caring to call’. On the other hand, respondents noted the need to think through communication and support with parents with learning disabilities ‘in this new world’.
Children and young people were reported to be dealing with the changes well and were, for example, keen to show the phone camera around their rooms. One social worker considered that the use of technology had actually enabled his communication with one young person. The young person concerned was in a permanent placement after a number of previous moves, but he associated social work visits with these moves and, as a result, found them upsetting and chose not to engage. However, he did choose to join a Zoom call.
Practising in the context of inequality
As has been noted by many commentators, COVID-19 and the response to it exposes inequality and it is unsurprising that child protection issues and responses are not immune. The practices highlighted above were made possible through technology not equally available to all in a society with a considerable digital divide.
This raises ethical issues around the contexts in which risk and co-operation are assessed. For example, would those who do not use technology be seen as ‘failing to engage’ or simply unable to for a host of reasons? What is the extent of the state’s responsibilities in providing the means for digital access if this is the only viable means of communication?
Many respondents referred to their fears for the present and the future as a result of inequality and austerity. Poverty, poor housing, and neighbourhoods denuded of support services were considered likely to exacerbate already existing tensions within families during lock down. Moreover, as respondents noted, visits were much easier to organise to those with gardens where social distancing could be maintained. What about those in small flats where there is no privacy to discuss issues such as domestic abuse? Thus respondents noted, demand for services is likely to rise and risks may go undetected placing increasing demands on local authorities already in very precarious financial situations.
Crises bring opportunities
As one respondent noted: ‘in normal times we don’t seek to link families to communities around them, but rather make interventions personal and individualised…and then criticise families if we feel they’re becoming ‘dependent’ on us’. This crisis has highlighted ‘how dependent we are on individualised home visits’.
For those of us who have been advocating a social model of protecting children for some time, the crisis offers the possibility to open up conversations such as how we might link families to communities in ways that widen circles of safety and connection. It also obliges the linking of those involved in child protection policy and practice with the wider conversations that are occurring about how we might build a social settlement rooted in more sustainable and socially just approaches. As has been noted: it makes no sense to address COVID-19 without at least trying to fix everything else, too, creating a world where our shared resources do more for more people.