By Harry Ferguson, Sarah Pink and Laura Kelly
The Covid-19 pandemic is presenting governments, social work leaders, managers and frontline practitioners with unique challenges. Our Economic and Social Research Council-funded research explores its impact on children, families and child protection social work.
Since April 2020, we have interviewed 48 social workers, family support workers and managers from four anonymous research sites, many on a monthly basis. We have also spoken with 22 family members and analysed a small number of digital interactions between social workers and parents.
Our emerging findings contain 12 key lessons for practice now during yet another lockdown and for the future:
- Social workers have creatively improvised to remain close to children and families, despite social distancing regulations and the risk of infection. They have met outside, on doorsteps and in gardens, and they have gone on the move, walking alongside children and families in public spaces. They have also adapted activities to suit new locations. Our research suggests that these forms of playful and mobile practice bring benefits and should be sustained.
- Social workers and organisations should trust the digital more, particularly as part of a hybrid practice that combines in-person and digital interactions. The use of digital technologies and communication tools, such as video calling/conferencing, text messaging and multimedia messaging, has increased dramatically during the pandemic. ‘Virtual’ visiting is framed by government guidance, and some social workers, as a last resort. Our research suggests that, while in-person visiting is undoubtedly necessary in some instances, digital case work should be evaluated on its own terms and not as an inherently flawed last resort.
- Digital interactions should be seen as differently, not always less, valuable. Parents we spoke with largely adjusted to the digital, and some highly meaningful interactions have occurred that enabled what media researchers term ‘digital intimacy’. Some children – particularly some teenagers – also benefited from social work conducted using video calls and other methods, such as WhatsApp messaging. Online meetings and case conferences were widely valued by social workers, and some services had started addressing important concerns about family inclusion through the development of hybrid approaches, in which families and a limited number of professionals attend in person.
- Existing research and guidance should be developed to maximise the benefits of digital social work and the hybrid practices it generates. Our research suggests such practices might usefully be taken forward as part of an expanded set of techniques for support, communication and evaluation in social work, whereby their use is tailored to families on a case specific basis. Yet these options also need to be designed in a way that is equitable, fair and inclusive. We found local variation in policy and practice and differences in recommended platforms (eg Skype, Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp) as well as practical and ethical tensions about what was most secure. There is a need for multi-agency and multi-disciplinary collaboration to develop digital child protection policy and practice guidelines that engage effectively with existing and emerging technologies.
- Social workers have chosen to take risks to support children and families, even when they have been afraid. Social workers have not stopped entering family homes where they have assessed a high level of risk and need, even when the level of community infection is high. Our data suggest that social workers have demonstrated bravery and personal integrity when balancing their anxiety and their professional values. This social worker expresses a commonly held view: “Children being safe is as important as Covid, I can’t not go into houses, I can’t not see children on their own”.
- Social workers don’t always maintain a physical distance from children and families. Throughout our nine months of fieldwork, social workers consistently spoke of how, when and why they allowed children to touch. They saw nurture as an important part of their role, to help children therapeutically, and rejected the idea that a physical distance could always be maintained. As one social worker suggests: “I tried not to touch either of them on Friday, but the visit before and the little girl had come and put her head on my knee. It is really difficult with little children because they just don’t understand, and you don’t want to frighten them because you’re there to help them.” This intimate child protection practice contributed to positive outcomes for children
- Covid-19 related risk-taking is not just an individual choice but systemic. Given social distancing doesn’t always happen, organisations must make PPE available and encourage its use to keep families and social workers safe. We observed local variation in policy and in practice relating to PPE, but also in the availability of adequate digital technology (eg mobile phones that allow video visits using the platforms favoured by families). It is unacceptable that social workers are forced to take more personal risks by having to visit in person due to employers’ lack of investment in decent smart phones. Some social workers are dismayed that there appears to have been little attempt to develop sector-specific best practice guidance on the use of PPE that engages with the realities of social work interactions.
- There is a particular need to develop guidance and share best practice on the use of face masks. It seems likely that even vaccinated workers will continue to need face masks to lower the risk of spreading and contracting infection. Masks are generally disliked by social workers, but have become increasingly normalised over the course of the pandemic. Social workers developed a variety of tactics to reduce their impact on their ability to get close to children. These included reusable masks with child-friendly patterns, showing their faces before masks were put on, and developing social stories to explain why mask wearing was necessary. Many social workers continually made context-specific judgements to wear or not to wear a mask, irrespective of what was in the national and local guidance. There is a need for training, to share best practice, draw lessons from existing research, and develop clear guidance to ensure appropriate mask wearing occurs.
- Social workers and family support workers are providing increased levels of material help and support for families. Examples include alleviating food poverty, picking up shopping and medication, providing furniture, clearing overgrown gardens and helping families get online. Families and social workers have reported very positively on how this has developed the humane dimensions of practice and supported positive relationships.
- Social workers miss the support of the office. A strong theme within our data is the importance of peer support and informal interactions with colleagues, as well as formal supervision, in managing the emotional demands of the social work role and the pandemic. Some particularly struggled with working from home because of their career stage and/or their home situation. Senior managers need to prioritise emotional well-being and build in meaningful support, even if this is digital rather than in-person. Some examples from our study include rotas and other workplace distancing measures to allow groups of colleagues to work together safely, opt-in occasional office attendance, ‘well-being desks’, socially distanced walks and outdoor meetings, online catch-ups and team WhatsApp groups.
- Social workers should not be expected to operate alone when supporting and safeguarding children. A range of early help, health and therapeutic services that normally support children and parenting largely retreated from homes during the early stages of the pandemic. Services went online, were provided by telephone or were simply suspended. Research shows that just one in ten parents of children under two saw a health visitor face to face during the first lockdown (March-June 2020). While schools often have done a great deal for pupils’ families, the net result has been that social workers have often ended up being the sole agency going into homes. While professional networks around the family have continued to meet online, social workers and many families have had limited practical support. As one suggested: “I don’t see what the difference in risk is … and that just makes me feel angry, when others don’t go out. We all have a duty to safeguard”.
- Social workers deserve greater public recognition for their contribution during the pandemic. This is particularly the case given the personal risks taken, illustrated by children’s social care infection rates (which notably increased in recent months in some areas) and distressing reports of Covid-related deaths. Several of our participants said they felt their work was unacknowledged or undervalued, by the public and sometimes by their management teams. Much more collective discussion of the personal risks from Covid-19 and public recognition of the contribution of social workers is needed.
Despite all the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that meaningful and effective relationships have been developed with children and families, and some good outcomes have also been achieved. There is a real opportunity to reflect on the social work role and the lessons that the pandemic could offer for the future.
Harry Ferguson is professor of social work at the University of Birmingham, Sarah Pink is director of the emerging technologies research lab at Monash University in Australia, and Dr Laura Kelly a research fellow at the University of Birmingham