Conducting international social work during Covid-19

Delays, the benefits and limits of video technology and the need to involve local experts are all things practitioners should take into account when considering overseas placements, says Carolyn Housman

Social worker carrying out video assessment
Photo: Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock (posed by model)

By Carolyn Housman, CEO, Children and Families Across Borders

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many social workers will be tasked with continuing their work remotely.  This raises many ethical and practical questions – from how to keep social workers safe if working with extremely vulnerable families who may have Covid through to how to use technology to undertake work that used to be face to face.

With more than 190 countries with confirmed Covid-19 cases, and many restricting movements, below are a few principles children and families social workers should bear in mind when carrying out international case work.

  1. Plan for delays.
    This probably could go without saying.  Any organisation in a Covid-19 affected country will be doing additional work to ensure the safety of its staff and compliance with new regulations, so casework will take longer even if there are no restrictions of movement.
  2. Make use of video technology.
    This can greatly expedite the work of social workers, particularly for viability assessments to determine whether a potential carer should be ruled out or more thoroughly assessed at a later date. In general, virtual interviews are sufficient for gathering basic, concrete and factual information of the nominated potential carers, such as their accommodation and living arrangements (identifying who lives in the household), employment and income, health history, support network, local facilities, or establishing if a person is willing to participate or should progress to further in-person assessments. Follow-up home visits will verify the information gathered through the virtual interview session, as well as address the areas of the assessment that require thorough observations, threading direct observation into the dialogues and analysing their non-verbal responses and reactions.
  3. However, video technology is not appropriate in all situations.
    Follow-up home visits will verify the information gathered through the virtual interview session, as well as address the areas of the assessment that require thorough observations, threading direct observation into the dialogues and analysing their non-verbal responses and reactions.  Below are some of the potential limitations and risks of relying solely on a virtual assessment as a tool to determine a permanency of the child.

    • Due to the restricted screen coverage when using a videolink, it is difficult to make accurate observations of non-verbal communication signals beyond what the social worker is physically allowed to see or hear. The social worker may fail to notice subtle reactions or nuances in the interviewee’s body language and facial expressions.
      It is not possible to be absolutely sure of what actually surrounds an interviewee ie whether the interviewee is in the room alone or with other persons, or if there are other persons present in a nearby room, or even whether the video link is being screened to others who might have an interest.
      For example, when we see fleeting eyes, or body turning to a certain direction, we may sense that the interviewee may be looking to another person in the space for approval, disapproval, prompt, etc but we will not be able to verify this on the videolink. This can have a significant effect on an interviewee’s responses, for example, if s/he were in an abusive or controlling relationship, they may not be able to express their views and opinions freely.
    • It may also be difficult to perceive delicate emotional responses correctly. Careful observation of synchronicity between verbal and non-verbal responses is necessary to gauge complex human emotions and ultimately helps to determine whether the information that the interviewee provides is trustworthy or accurate, as well as measuring the emotional responses of the interviewee.
    • Through the virtual dimension, social workers are limited to what they can see and hear, and are entirely within the control of the interviewee. This limits the use of the senses that a social work assessor would usually apply in conducting an assessment. For example, smelling food-cooking, pets, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or activation of other senses such as shoes sticking to the floor (indication of dirty floor / bad home hygiene) and feeling draught or damp (indication of cold home environment) and so on.
    • Technical issues, for example a poor internet connection or the device malfunctioning may affect the quality of the observation or confuse the social worker with mixed or wrong messages. For instance, the social worker may struggle to differentiate the significance of a pause (hesitation to answer the question) with a delayed internet transmission or disturbance; or voice tremors (a sign of nervousness, distress or even anger) with the audio device fault causing false sound effect.
    • There may also be risk of serious harm to the interviewee if the confidentiality of the information disclosed in the video link discussion were to become more widely known in the community due to legal or illegal access to the video stream or as a result of a breach of confidentiality by any person with access to the process.
  4. A face to face visit should always be conducted before a final decision is made to place a child with the carer.
    In some cases, a virtual assessment alone may provide significant and detrimental enough information to determine the option is not viable. However, in many cases a delay to the completion of work to wait for a subsequent home visit may be justifiable and appropriate when placing a child overseas. Social workers should request a delay to the filing of a report until such time that it is possible to complete the assessment. Once a child is placed outside the jurisdiction of the UK local authorities and courts, monitoring and supporting the overseas placement may not be straightforward, in comparison to placements within the UK. Additionally, such delays can be afforded (within reason) as the actual physical relocation of the child from one country to another will be hampered for some time, due to international travel bans or entry restrictions (ie quarantine upon arrival, entry visa approval, etc.). Social workers are advised to do as much preparatory work (immigration checks, viability assessments, practicality of mirroring a placement order, preparatory support work with the potential carer, consideration of post-placement support, etc) in order to expedite cases as soon as the face-to-face visit can be concluded.
  5. Where possible, local experts should be involved.
    Best practice has always been to work in collaboration with the authorities and professionals in the country of question, making requests to local social workers abroad for any pieces of work to be completed within their country.  For more information on why this is, see this factsheet. While many UK social workers may be using video technology to carry out their work with families here in the UK, this does not mean that the same methodology should apply to overseas work.
  6. The benefit to the child must be weighed against risk
    The current restrictions of movement are intended to be temporary, so social workers must seriously consider any additional risk of progressing child placements abroad during this time.If restrictions in movement are to be longer-term, it would be not possible to place a child abroad and therefore assessments of potential carers overseas will need to be delayed. Principles of prioritising need and managing risk are central to the response during the pandemic.The same principles of upholding human rights, promoting social justice and maintaining professional integrity apply during the pandemic.

Carolyn Housman is CEO of Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB), sits on the Professional Advisory Committee of the International Social Service Network and is a steering committee member of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance. The international social work team at CFAB offers free advice to UK social workers and lawyers on international casework. Call the free Advice Line on 0207 735 8941. Interim guidance on obtaining overseas assessments is also available on CFAB’s website

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