A year on from the start of the pandemic, we invite Clive Diaz to reflect on his article from last year. The social distancing restrictions made necessary by COVID-19 have put social workers at risk and isolated already vulnerable families and young people. Technology has helped keep services operating, but to whose benefit?
“For social workers, being close to and immersing themselves in the lives of children and families is crucial to ensuring they are protected from harm. However, when close contact became unsafe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, social services departments had to adapt their practice quickly. Ongoing research by Professor Harry Ferguson, which started in 2020 in four English local authorities (LAs), provides an insight into how social workers are navigating practice.
For families considered at lower risk, home visits have often transitioned to virtual visits using video-calling technology where local authorities and families have suitable technology (Ferguson et al., 2020). Ferguson found that authorities have been able to reduce the number of home visits conducted, thereby reducing the risk of transmission between families and social care staff.
For children on child protection plans or with very complex needs, the four LAs continued to advocate visits in person. The desired approach is for practitioners to remain outside (for example, on doorsteps or in gardens) and to interact with children and families while maintaining the two-metre social distancing guidance. This does raise ethical issues in terms of confidentiality, however, and it may make both practitioners, children and families feel uncomfortable.
How has lockdown affected children in care and care leavers?
The National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) surveyed 230 children in care and care leavers aged 6–26 from 55 local authorities in Spring 2020. The principal aim was to explore children’s experiences of loneliness and anxiety, but access to technology for contacting friends and families and the frequency of contact with social workers or personal advisors was also assessed (NYAS, 2020).
Of care leavers, 86 per cent reported feeling lonely and anxious more often during lockdown than prior to the pandemic. For children in care, 50 per cent reported feeling lonely more often during lockdown and 45 per cent reported feeling anxious more often during lockdown.
The reasons provided by young people for their increased experiences of anxiety included reduced access to services: 13 per cent of children in care reported they had no contact with their social worker during lockdown and 9 per cent of care leavers had not had any contact with their social worker since lockdown.
Perhaps of more concern are the care leavers, who are uniquely disadvantaged as they start adulthood without the social capital of a network of adults to call on for support. Care leavers are especially vulnerable during the pandemic, affected by loss of employment and housing, and disruption to their education.
In recent months there have been some qualitative studies carried out to assess the effect of the lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions on care-experienced people. I was involved in a study led by Dr Louise Roberts at Cardiff University. Interviews were carried out with 21 care-experienced young people but we also surveyed the professionals working with them.
Our study found a stark disparity in young people’s experiences, with some reassured by support from professionals (particularly voluntary agencies) but others giving vivid accounts of being neglected and forgotten by professionals.
“I didn’t hear off my social worker, no one from social services, didn’t have no support. They sort of went off and didn’t tell me. I didn’t even know what was going on to be honest,” commented Paul (name changed to protect anonymity).
When discussing contact with his PA/Social worker, he said:
“I have tried ringing everyone in the office but I still can’t get hold of my social worker to this day. I haven’t spoken to him in 5 to 6 months, something like that….”
Some care leavers reported being directed to Facebook group pages for information.
“What child or care leaver wants to have social services on Facebook? Like what child? … I found out or I was to meant to find out from Facebook that my money was being cut, they didn’t send out a letter. So I’m not going to respond to social services through Facebook and I don’t think I should have to,” commented Mary.
Professionals stated that, on the whole, care leavers reacted very well to online communication and showed a good level of engagement. A number of respondents stated that the absence of travel time enabled greater efficiency, supporting more frequent and potentially more meaningful contact with young people. One social worker who completed a survey reported the following (Roberts, 2020):
“I feel that video calls have been invaluable and, though should not replace face-to-face contact, have cut travel time that eats into the working day. If anything, video calls have allowed more frequent and meaningful contact with our young people.”
As it has been widely reported that social workers are under pressure from heavy caseloads, it is easy to see how clawing back any time that can be spent on chipping away at that load would be welcome.
The professionals who were surveyed generally reported offering a high-quality service to care leavers. But many of the care leavers interviewed were negative about the support (or lack of) offered by statutory agencies in particular.
Most care leavers were particularly critical of the lack of support offered by mental health services; they were more positive about the support offered by voluntary services compared to statutory agencies.
This contrast between the perspectives of social workers and service users was also evident in research carried out by Baginsky et al. (2020), which considered the views of both families and professionals regarding online child-protection conferences.
Although the sample was fairly small, this research also found that parents were very negative about online child-protection conferences and their opportunity to play a meaningful role in decision making. Social workers, on the other hand, were much more positive about online child-protection conferences.
In a study carried out in Northern Ireland which explored care leavers’ experiences during the pandemic, Kelly et al. (2020) found that many of the young people interviewed were very dissatisfied with support provided to them by professionals during the pandemic. One young person described being very upset that his social worker failed to maintain contact with him, especially as he was isolated from his peers at school and through leisure activities. This young person felt these letdowns had damaged their relationship to the extent that when he received his exam results, he felt he had nobody to share his news with at a key turning point in his life.
As we are yet to exit lockdown, the amount of research available on the quality of care conducted with social distancing measures is still limited. However, from what is available, there are examples of care being negatively affected and this should be of concern. The use of technology for enabling services will likely advance, so it is essential the impact on the wellbeing of service users is considered to maintain quality.
It is imperative that further study is carried out on this subject and areas of good practice are identified so that lockdown does not lead to families and children in care experiencing a poorer service than they need and received prior to the pandemic.”
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