From ‘harsh’ virtual hearings to digital treasure hunts: remote social work under Covid-19

During the pandemic, children's social workers and families they support have faced a rapidly evolving environment that's sparked fears of digital injustices – but has also driven creative practice

Social work team video conferencing
Picture posed by models (Credit: fizkes/Adobe Stock)

The ‘remote’ family court hearing on 22 May was conducted, via Zoom, from several locations in Bristol.

From a technical standpoint, proceedings moved relatively smoothly, ending with an emergency protection order being made, with a fresh hearing date set for a few days afterwards.

But with coronavirus restrictions in place, that conclusion saw a couple – whose children had received severe unexplained injuries – facing a future of video contact with people too young for it to have meaning.

With one of the children just weeks old, professionals admitted the arrangement could result in the bond between a breastfeeding mother and her baby beginning to weaken.

This hearing was in fact a training aid, arranged jointly by Bristol Family Law Bar Association and Bristol Resolution for an audience composed mostly of social workers.

But the session laid bare some of the starkest facets of children’s social work’s collision since late March with the digital realm. It also revealed the rapidly evolving situation children’s social workers and those who work with them have faced as they have used technology to adapt their practice for lockdown.

This picture was reflected in answers social workers provided to Community Care’s recent survey on practice during coronavirus, which was conducted in the weeks leading up to the mock hearing in Bristol. Here we take a detailed look at the pros and cons of the new, semi-virtual approaches being taken in children’s services.

‘These recommendations do not come easily’

“[The situation around contact] would have been a shock, incredibly harsh [to uninitiated observers] – these recommendations do not come easily,” says Sarah Duffy, a social worker at Bristol council who participated, in character, in the mock hearing.

“I had to write a court statement last month and it goes completely against your moral code – everything you are normally trying to promote.”

Appropriately, given the powers they hold, the work of the family courts has been subject to significant scrutiny as they have experimented with virtual formats over the past three months. From early in lockdown, there was a near complete suspension of non-emergency contested hearings, particularly those likely to separate children from their parents on a long-term basis.

A review, commissioned by the family court president, Andrew McFarlane, and conducted by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory during April, collated a range of potential fears around the use of remote justice. These included difficulties stemming from the lack of face-to-face contact, including around how fully parties, particularly parents, could participate, and concerns around how well hearings were being prepared for, and how confidential they were.

The review concluded that many hearings could proceed without causing injustice. But it highlighted some far from ideal situations families have found themselves in while participating in proceedings, such as a mother giving evidence from a garden shed with her children in the house and a couple dialling in from pay-as-you-go mobiles from the side of a motorway.

Social workers who responded to our survey also worried about remote justice, including the difficulties of conducting pre-proceedings assessments. “Court can be especially difficult, and is reliant on careful planning with and instructing of legal briefs,” said one social worker based at a North West council.

Even when plans have been carefully laid, the system can break down, Duffy points out.

“I had to do one on the phone, because the parents didn’t have Zoom, and the dad got cut off – the assumption was that he’d hung up,” she says. “After the hearing, when I spoke to him he was very, very angry – and rightly so – that it had continued.” An extra hearing was held in the afternoon to ensure his views were heard, she adds.

‘Parents unclear as to who is even in the room’

The courts are far from the only arena in which problems have arisen that can leave families facing digital disadvantage.

“We’re seeing some social workers going above and beyond,” says Cathy Ashley, the chief executive of the Family Rights Group charity, which has surveyed kinship carers, and heard from families contacting its advice line, about life under lockdown.

“But we’re also regularly finding child protection conferences and other key meetings are being held by phone, with parents often unclear as to who is even in the room, let alone how they can contribute effectively.”

Ashley adds that this is “far from partnership work as envisaged by the Children Act” and “must not become the new normal”.

Tools for the job

Respondents to Community Care’s survey in May revealed they had used a wide range of apps in order to manage their relationships with people they support and with internal and external colleagues. Naturally, these choices were influenced by existing and new hardware made available by their employers, as well as the attitudes of managers and IT departments to different platforms. It’s worth mentioning that this list does not include old-fashioned telephone conferencing, which has been used extensively, including for court hearings.

Many social workers have told Community Care that the most important consideration – appropriately – is that things are enabled to happen, by whatever means works at the time. Nonetheless, as councils and their partners have adjusted to working under Covid, considerations of stability and security have understandably come to the fore. Despite its convenience and flexibility, for instance, the family courts are now moving away from Zoom and towards the cloud video platform (CVP) being provided by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

Children’s social workers who completed our survey presented mixed views of how remote meetings involving families had been going.

Some explained that families had struggled because a lack of mobile data had hindered their participation.

Others echoed Ashley’s remarks, saying that remote meetings left parents less able to challenge comments and report findings, especially if for technical reasons they were denied visual cues.

Broadly speaking, social workers’ remarks supported our headline findings that practitioners feel Covid-19 has significantly affected their practice – principally because of the loss of face-to-face contact – and has taken a negative toll on the wellbeing of people they work with.

‘Treasure hunts via video call’

Despite the many difficulties though, there are clear signs of necessity fuelling invention.

Respondents to Community Care’s survey discussed ways in which the use of smartphones to replace visits to families has led social workers to prepare differently and to think on their feet – with positive effects. This has been especially true in terms of contact with teenagers, who have grown up comfortable with staying in touch via video.

“There is more effective communication with our children and young people – the use of brilliant ideas such as treasure hunts via video call to look round a house,” said one team manager based in the North East.

In Bristol, Duffy and her colleague Elena Castanares both stress that the tools deployed during lockdown cannot replace face-to-face social work, especially where young children and babies are concerned.

Practice tips for online ‘visits’

When are online interactions with children and families appropriate and how can social workers make the most of them? Claudia Megele provides guidance in one of our series of podcasts for practising under Covid-19, available on Community Care Inform Children.

Nonetheless, says Castanares, “some children have taken to [virtual contact] really nicely”.

“A team member told me one of their children just got her phone and was very keen to do a WhatApp videocall,” Castanares says. “She got herself under the duvet in a ‘tent’, had the torch on her phone on and loved the novelty – she was more able to engage.”

Nationally, says Claudia Megele, chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network, practitioners have shown “great creativity and practice resilience” in their use of technology during the pandemic.

“This has been a welcome development for many young people and their families, who have engaged better and more openly with practitioners and services,” she says.

Megele cites examples of children who have never previously participated in review meetings or child protection conferences but, because of the switch to digital rather than physical formats, have felt confident enough to do so.

“Some children have even chaired their own reviews, and this has offered them validation and sense of control over their own experience,” Megele says.

‘Everyone needs to be succinct’

Up the road from Bristol at Gloucestershire council, Julie Miles, one of the heads of service for safeguarding, says remote working with families has forced a shift in how social workers and other professionals approach such meetings.

The end of social work’s admin nightmare, or a new chapter?

Besides their interactions with children and families, social workers who took Community Care’s recent survey had much to say about how lockdown adaptations had changed their dealings with other professionals. It’s worth remembering that before coronavirus, practitioners regularly cited their IT infrastructure as a source of stress, and that councils were at very different stages in terms of the quality and stability of their technology, with employee confidence in using systems similarly variable.

A number of people commented that shorter formats for child protection conferences and other multi-agency forums had been to the benefit of all participants, not only families.

Practitioners working in large authorities also mentioned that the switch to digital meetings saved them significant travel time every month, making them better able to keep on top of caseloads.

But others said they had found the admin surrounding virtual meetings, including the electronic preparation and sharing of resources, more onerous than that associated with physical ones. Some, especially managers, also felt increasingly frazzled by having to participate in endless – and sometimes overlapping – sessions on Zoom or Teams, day after day. This formed part of a broader picture in which some social workers, including those living alone or with children in the house, expressed fears about the toll home working was taking on their mental health.

“Child protection conferences are not as long as they used to be – as part of this new way of working everyone needs to be succinct, but when in you’re in a room with 10 people conversations are different,” she says. “You can’t do that in this [virtual] environment, and it’s not fair on parents.”

Social workers at both South West councils say they have purchased equipment to give to family members to enable them to join meetings – which in some cases has actually increased attendance.

The authorities also now provide facilities in offices through which families can participate, supported from a safe distance by staff.

In Gloucestershire, which has also been involved in its own version of the mock hearing seen by Community Care, that offer now extends to court proceedings.

“We have set up two virtual court rooms in area offices, where there’s IT kit and support on site for parents, so they can have access to fair justice,” adds Miles. “They are in a building, can bring solicitors if they choose, so it feels like court in many respects.”

‘No return to normal before next year’

Such moves are likely to be welcomed by all participants in the family justice process.

In Bristol, Castanares and Duffy raise the loss of families’ face-to-face support from lawyers and social workers as one of the elements that has troubled them most during and after fully remote hearings.

A guidance note issued this month by McFarlane, the family court president, warned though that it is unlikely “anything approaching” normal procedure will be returned to before next year. Even so, in the face of looming backlogs and damaging delays for children and families, they have little option but to find ways forward, with ‘hybrid hearings’ enabling parents – but no one else – to attend court a proposed next step.

More broadly, children’s services – which are eyeing a likely surge in referrals as well as coronavirus-shaped holes in their councils’ budgets – must also now forge ahead. That will mean drawing on the new models shaped by lockdown, as social distancing continues, even as many practitioners will also be using the easing of restrictions to reinstate as much direct interaction as possible.

They will be continuing to navigate many practical and ethical challenges, Megele acknowledges.

“[But] the overwhelming feedback [within the network] has been that going forward, we need to learn, adopt and adapt the positive practices we have developed during this period to complement our face-to-face practice,” she says.

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