It seems inevitable that demand for statutory child protection services will increase as people are asked to stay inside together. How do you keep children, young people, parents and social workers safe at a time when carrying out home visits would almost inevitably breach social distancing rules implemented by the government?
There are currently over 52,000 children subject to a child protection plan in England – these children are deemed by the state to be at risk of significant harm. Statutory guidance states that social workers must visit these children and their parents on a regular basis. In most Local Authorities this is fortnightly.
Parents of vulnerable children still have the option for their children to attend school or nursery but early evidence says this is rarely happening. If families are already struggling, being confined to their home for an extra 30 hours a week will inevitably add pressure.
For social workers with already heavy caseloads then, it seems the stresses on the system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means they will only have to work even harder.
And, given government guidelines on social distancing, they’ll have to find a different way of working. Technology is changing the way all of our working lives are enabled currently, and it might yet provide solutions for social work.
But could an increased use of video conferencing, the use of which has mushroomed under lockdown, expose vulnerabilities to the social work system in terms of confidentiality and security?
In this context, COVID-19 has presented policy makers, politicians, Local Authority senior managers and frontline social workers with very serious ethical issues.
What are the risks to frontline social workers?
The government guidance is for us all to stay two metres apart, but in most normal size houses and flats this would be difficult. If I think of my own domestic situation; what if we were required to have a visit from a social worker?
We are a family of five, with two small children. My four-year-old is a ball of energy, who at any moment might decide to run from one room to another; it would be pretty challenging trying to remain at a distance of two metres from him. He’s also not so proficient in manners just yet – he might shout (and therefore emit tiny globules of saliva out into the world) or sneeze without putting his hand over his mouth. There is scant information to be had about the possibilities of children being carriers of the virus but what if he is? How would a visitor to our house protect themselves from the dangers of the current pandemic?
There’s also the size of the home that a social worker might visit to consider. Social distancing would be particularly difficult in smaller houses and flats.
The government has not issued specific guidance about home visits for social workers, saying only that local authorities should decide for themselves, taking into consideration Public Health England’s advice about social distancing.
New Department for Education (DfE) guidance released last week states that when “social workers and other staff are undertaking home visits, personal protective equipment (PPE) is not required unless the people being visited are symptomatic of Coronavirus (COVID-19) or have a confirmed diagnosis of Coronavirus (COVID-19)”.
However Official World Health Organisation (WHO) advice states that it is “possible to catch COVID-19 from someone who has, for example, just a mild cough and does not feel ill”. According to WHO therefore, there is a risk that family members could infect social workers or vice versa during home visits. This is clearly very worrying for social workers and other key professionals who carry out home visits as well as for the families they are visiting. Local Authorities owe a duty of care to their social workers, but in the current circumstances, how can they ensure social workers are safe when carrying out home visits? Furthermore, social work values highlight that we must do no harm as a starting point. In the current situation how can we carry out home visits safely when we may be asymptomatic and be visiting families who we could potentially infect?
Having PPE is top of a list of concerns in a survey the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is running, which has seen responses from more than 1000 practitioners. When I asked a social worker what PPE was available recently, she answered ‘hand sanitiser’. It seems nationally there is a major shortage of PPE equipment for social workers.
The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) provides further challenges for social workers. There are two issues with this – availability in a time of growing demand and the effect it might have on the families we visit.
Even if Local Authorities could source proper PPE that could offer the most comprehensive protection – perhaps perspex face coverings, plastic aprons and plastic gloves, how would children and parents feel about visitors turning up looking like surgeons?
Clearly this is going to be make it very difficult for social workers to build up trusting relationships with both parents and children, particularly when historically families have often reluctant to trust social workers.
Can technology help?
Those white-collar workers not already familiar with video conferencing apps before the current pandemic have had to quickly familiarise themselves with the available technology in the last two weeks. Could it also offer solutions for social work?
Some clear guidelines are certainly called for. Further challenges for social workers, many of whom are working from home, are that they will be expected by Local Authorities to set boundaries with their family members to avoid the real risk of children, partners or flatmates being able to hear or see confidential information relating to children at risk of significant harm.
Some social workers may have rooms that can be set aside for such purposes at defined times, but this will obviously be more difficult for those social workers living in smaller accommodation.
In terms of the software itself, WhatsApp is the only platform that has been widely publicised as encrypted, meaning the video and audio data remains secure from third party monitoring.
Optimised as it is for mobile use, and therefore constricted by the size of phone screens, the platform is not an ideal choice for group calls. However, it has been reported as being helpful as a means for parents and children to communicate with social workers to (for example) show them around the house if that is deemed necessary.
Plenty of workers newly adapting to working from home have gotten acquainted with Zoom but with popularity comes scrutiny – and the security of Zoom has been called into question.
There is also the new phenomenon of Zoom bombing, where third parties hack emails to find joining details and invade meetings to be disruptive. It is all a new challenge for our IT departments.
There are some early indications of really interesting and innovative practice, including having child protection conferences via Skype with the parents present in Local Authority offices.
Social workers are used to being creative in order to ensure children and parents rights (alongside their own safety) is maintained. It is therefore perfectly possible that new technology will further enable such creativity in allowing social workers to build productive relationships with children and parents, but the challenges must not be underestimated.
Currently the government are putting a lot of responsibility on Local Authorities to keep children safe in very difficult circumstances but there seems very little clear guidance on how they should do this.
The government needs to act fast to provide Local Authorities with extra funding and clear guidance as to how they should keep vulnerable children safe whilst ensuring staff and families are protected from infection of COVID-19.
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