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Under lockdown, social work has gone virtual. What happens when the real world comes back?

Child protection relies on face-to-face relationships and has been turned inside out by coronavirus. As lockdown eases, there are fears over what might come next.

Coronavirus in Bristol

In normal times, ask a children’s social worker what gets them down and they’re likely to grumble about how admin pressures steal the precious hours they want to be devoting to face-to-face social work.

Whether that’s visiting homes and gathering evidence of risks that threaten children’s safety, or working with families on the solutions that can keep them together, few jobs rely more on real-world contact.

With the onset of lockdown in March, a whole way of working was turned on its head.

“We were told to avoid face-to-face visits unless absolutely necessary – everything moved online, with virtual meetings and keeping in touch with children and young people via Skype or WhatsApp,” says Alexis*, a social worker at South Gloucestershire council.

Over the past two months, a new world of contact through windows and in gardens, and of child protection meetings – and even hearings in the closed world of the family courts – conducted over Zoom and other apps, has been forged by necessity.

Change has made a tough job harder – at the same time as children have also been seen far less by teachers, health workers, children’s centre staff and others who so often pick up the first signs something is wrong.

Now, as restrictions begin to ease and schools make preparations to open, concerns are growing that a surge in referrals could test an already creaking system to breaking point. Against this backdrop, the government has caused further alarm by diluting – without warning – a wide range of the rules that help keep children in care safe.

‘Obviously there was some confusion’

During lockdown, the Cable has been catching up with social workers at local councils, as well as others working within child protection.

While the introduction of social restrictions gave a huge shock to the system, most reckon local authorities have done a decent job of adapting.

“We had a week or two of chaos and then things were under control: these are the Zoom settings you need, these are the meetings you can use it for,” says Jamie, a social worker at Bristol council. “Obviously there was some confusion, but very quickly things were understandable and clear.”

Less clear were the circumstances in which social workers were still expected to go into people’s homes, and what access to personal protective equipment (PPE) they should expect on the unavoidable occasions they had to.

“They have given us nothing. We are an essential, statutory service.”

Elliott, social worker at Bath and North East Somerset council

People working in children’s services waited longer than their colleagues in adult social care to receive guidance from the government clarifying changes to their legal duties – such as the occasions when they must carry out visits.

“They have given us nothing – we are an essential, statutory service,” was the frustrated response of Elliott, a social worker at Bath and North East Somerset council, in late March. “With [lower-level] work I can pass some things over, but I also have legal obligations.”

When a document did emerge in early April, it was widely criticised for being sketchy around the situations in which rule-bending that might be acceptable, and for suggesting that PPE would only be needed when entering households where there were people with clear coronavirus symptoms. Thankfully, PPE is now available at all local councils – though some social workers say they are using masks and other barrier gear as sparingly as is safely possible, because of how much harder it is to build rapport with children while looking like a surgeon.

‘Video is young people’s normal’

As lockdown has gone on, there have been some unexpected positive developments thanks to the newfound reliance on technology. Video calls, which for the time being qualify as a statutory visit, are preferred by some young people to a more formal encounter with a social worker.

“It feels silly it’s not been thought of before,” says Jamie. “For a 10-to-13-year-old, it’s their normal to communicate through a screen, and the idea you can’t have a meaningful conversation that way now seems so outdated.

“I am, like, speaking to a 10-year-old in her room, on her bed, really chilled, just chatting,” Jamie goes on. “There’s none of the weirdness that can happen for instance when you go into school – it’s a bit more natural.”

Another example of online contact having some upsides is in circumstances when a social worker needs to visit a child who is a train journey away, points out Annie Hunter, South Gloucestershire’s principal social worker for children.

“Say after a two-hour trip they meet that young person, who just doesn’t want to talk that day,” Hunter says. “They head back and that’s most of the day gone, potentially without any progress with that young person. “We [still] prioritise face-to-face contact, but [in that circumstance] instead of one attempt, the third phone or video call attempt in a day might find that young person ready to chat.”

But other meetings are much less straightforward. Child protection conferences, which all professionals involved with a family are invited to, can be awkward and intimidating at the best of times. Having them take place over Zoom – or over a regular conference call, where visual cues are absent – can make things even more confusing for parents, and can disadvantage people who have limited data, a bad connection or an old device.

“They are happening, it’s functioning, but I hope as soon as possible things will change,” says Jamie.

Trial by video

Nowhere are the stakes around potential digital injustice higher than in the family courts, which, given their ability to remove children from their families, arguably wield the harshest measures the state can enact on an individual under English law.

A mock-hearing on 22 May performed for an audience of mostly social workers – a collaboration between Bristol Family Law Bar Association and Bristol Resolution – highlighted how the work of the courts has become even more harrowing under lockdown conditions.

The performance, delivered over Zoom, focused on a couple whose two young children have sustained serious unexplained injuries. It set out in heartbreaking detail how difficult face-to-face contact, between parents and children who have been temporarily removed from them, is to arrange given the need for all parties to self-isolate for 14 days before meetings can take place. The mock-hearing underlined that, in the case of infants, the delay can be long enough for the bond between a mother and child to start unravelling.

To keep children safe, the courts have had little option but to proceed with such emergency sessions, which have, along with some procedural hearings, been taking place via conference or video call. But other contested hearings – especially those likely to end in an order that separates children from their parents in the long term – have been adjourned, leaving some families hanging in unbearably stressful situations.

“We are acutely aware of the shortcomings of remote trials and advantages of face-to-face for contested matters,” says Sarah Pope, a family law barrister at Bristol’s Albion Chambers, who participated in the mock-hearing.

Pope adds that ‘hybrid hearings’, where only the family appear in person – at two metres distance – before a judge, while other witnesses contribute by video, can offer a way of getting things restarted. 

But in Bristol alone, it’s believed dozens of cases have already been put on ice, creating a backlog within a system that already struggles for capacity.

‘I think it’s going to go nuts’

Across the wider children’s services sector, the expectation of a similar overload coming down the tracks has people worried.

In late April, a number of south west charities working with people affected by domestic abuse – a key factor in children’s safeguarding – warned that, like elsewhere in the country, referrals had been soaring during lockdown. That month alone, the number of universal credit claims in Bristol also came close to doubling as households lost jobs, ramping up pressure on local families.

By contrast, calls to children’s social care have been falling – by up to a third in Bristol, early on in lockdown – in large part due to school closures. School places have been kept open for children already involved with a social worker, but many families have not taken them up – and given parents’ and carers’ justified fears over potential Covid-19 infection, councils have not mostly been attempting to force the issue.

Jamie worries that the scaling-back during lockdown of many support services, which sit alongside the interventions social workers make, will have been hitting people hard.

“Teenagers obviously haven’t wanted to be home all the time, meaning added stress – and added police involvement”

“There’s been a lack of face-to-face mental health and drug and alcohol support, which people rely on,” Jamie says. “People are feeling really isolated and alone.

“Teenagers obviously haven’t wanted to be home all the time, meaning added stress – and added police involvement,” Jamie adds. “I think it’s going to go nuts – once kids are back at school, once doctors are seeing people, there will be lots of stuff we’ve missed and it will definitely be worrying.”

Government’s ’empty’ words

The government has been keen to talk up, over the last couple of months, the extra £3.2 billion in financial support it has put in place for councils to deal with coronavirus-related pressures.

But the Local Government Association (LGA) has warned that that money already looks woefully inadequate – by a factor of four, nationally – to soak up extra demand at a time when income has gone off a cliff-edge. At the end of April, Bristol council warned it was facing an £82 million black hole in its finances, while for South Gloucestershire and BaNES figures of £27 million and £50 million have been quoted.

“We are waiting to see what this government really means by, ‘Do what you have to and we will sort the money’,” says Helen Godwin, Labour councillor for Southmead and Bristol’s cabinet member for children and young people. “But that is already starting to look a bit empty.”

The financial gloom has sharpened fears around changes to children’s safeguarding legislation, which were hastily put in place during late April and which dilute or remove a range of measures meant to safeguard children in care.

The government argues the amendments – including removing timescales around how often children in care have to be visited, and doing away with some of the checks and balances in fostering and adoption processes – are temporary and were requested by the sector in anticipation of Covid-19 pressures.

But the majority of professional bodies involved in discussions with the Department for Education (DfE) have denied being properly consulted on the changes. Moreover, the previous Tory government tried – and failed – to push through some similar measures under the Children and Social Work Act 2017.

Some campaigners worry that, should councils become overwhelmed with new children’s social work cases and begin making use of the new measures, they could be extended beyond their initial expiry date at the end of September, weakening safeguards for the long haul. Even before Covid-19, children’s services were putting the greatest strain on most local authorities’ finances – and where hard-pressed organisations see their duties lessened, they may take the path of least resistance.

Compared with many councils, Bristol has kept on top of its children’s services budget, which was largely balanced pre-coronavirus. BaNES and South Gloucestershire had a trickier financial year in 2019-20, with both recording overspends due to the cost of care placements and other factors.

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Both Bristol and South Gloucestershire (BaNES did not comment within the timescales of this article) say they are well-advanced with plans for when the predicted coming spike in demand meets the changed world of post-Covid social work. The councils say they have no intention to make no use of the new ‘relaxations’ of duties available to them – but no one can say for sure what lies around the corner.

“My instinct is not, ‘Oh, you know this will be cataclysmic.’ I think we will manage” says Godwin. “But there are so many unknowns at the moment, and I would be a fool to make promises.”

*All frontline workers’ names have been changed

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