How equipped is children’s social work for digital safeguarding?

Digital tools have the potential to enhance children's safeguarding. But to achieve this, we need to upskill social workers, overhaul case management systems and involve children, say Sarah Carlick and Corinne May-Chahal

Boy staring intensely at phone
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By Corinne May-Chahal and Sarah Carlick

Many think digital safeguarding is about staying safe online but it means much more. Our work seeks to develop innovative ways in which children and young people can digitally and safely self-refer to children’s social care, allowing them to communicate harms and experiences in real time.

Such a digital front door would support frontline practitioners to manage risk in real time and build better relationships with their communities.

We recently interviewed senior managers across eight local authorities to scope their readiness for children’s digital safeguarding. We found an openness and some creativity, but a lack of policy or strategy supporting digital safeguarding.

Pandemic experience

The use of digital communications was inevitable through the pandemic. This presented challenges for children’s social care, but services were quick to adapt.

Social worker carrying out video assessment

Photo: Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock (posed by model)

Unsurprisingly, tools used were limited to familiar platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp as there is little availability of dedicated safeguarding tools or applications (Carlick, 2018).

During our research, senior leaders provided evidence of digital services enabling children to participate in some aspects of service delivery.

Involving children in co-designing systems

But the idea that children could be involved in co-designing the system architecture from the point of referral and throughout the safeguarding journey was new.

Technology could enable children to see, amend and contribute to records, know their service history, build trusting relationships with practitioners and feed back to them.

In response, practitioners would need to be consistently flexible and creative when working with them, and systems would need to be adaptable.

Social work skills and training gaps

However, echoing previous research, (SCIE/BASW, 2019), interviewees said their workforces were not sufficiently digitally skilled, and that current case management systems were not able to adapt to the ways in which children communicate.

The skills gap is the result of  specifically focused digital skills training not being widely available within local authorities or safeguarding partnerships. There are no digital safeguarding training programmes or digital skills frameworks to work towards and it is not embedded as an essential core subject.

Furthermore, digital skills is not a standard core element within social work qualification programmes. It simply is not on the radar!

Directors stressed the benefits of having a workforce that was proficient in using and ‘talking’ digital technologies.

They described how this had worked in the past with children with more complex needs, who did not want to engage face to face. For example, some workers who were interested in gaming and digital activities used these as a tool for engagement, which resulted in positive connections.

Barriers to implementation

Participants reported challenges and barriers to adoption and implementation of digital safeguarding at both national and local level.

This included a need to integrate purchasing across councils and services; creating social care tech teams and bringing together social care and tech staff so they co-design systems together; and the costs of implementing local authority-wide digital transformation.

Blocks illustrating a change of policy

Image: Dzmitry/Adobe Stock

Addressing these requires policy changes and for the government to adopt a digital safeguarding approach.

The new Working Together to Safeguarding Children (2023) urges safeguarding partners to co-design services with children and families to ensure different communities get the help and support they need.

However, it does not go far enough in bringing social care and technology together and making clear that digital is not just about datasets and case management systems.

The need for social workers to work out of hours

Digital accessibility also includes having a digitally resilient workforce that works outside normal office hours.

A social worker working late at home

Photo: Antonioguillem/Adobe Stock

This is because child maltreatment and children’s needs can arise at any time of day or night, and having access to a social worker out of hours will support the relationship-based practice that is crucial to the success of digital safeguarding.

Finally, changes need to be made to case management systems to enable children and families to engage easily and digitally (Munro, 2011; MacAlister, 2022).

Such systems must be agile, continuously updating in response to emerging technologies, and facilitate easy engagement for practitioners, children and parents.

In sum, there is a will to make a success of digital safeguarding but we must work with children to find the way.

Corinne May-Chahal is professor of applied social science at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on helping children and adults keep safe in a digital world

Dr Sarah Carlick is a digital safeguarding consultant whose work focuses on how organisations can use tech for good, through co-design with children and young people

References

Carlick, S (2018) Creative art-based technologies for interagency working together for safeguarding children and young people 

MacAlister, J (2022) The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care final report

Munro, E (2011) The Munro review of child protection: Final report – A child-centred systems

SCIE/BASW (2019) Digital Capabilities for Social Workers: Stakeholders’ Report

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