16th April 2020

What is socially distanced child protection and can it work?

Investigative Researcher

Covid-19 has turned the world of child protection upside down, with children out of school and out of sight. Sadly, for many children, home can be a frightening place. Social workers are there to find and help these children, but they too are grappling with how to safeguard during lockdown and social distancing. Social work teams are adapting to meet this challenge and having to make tough judgments about risk in situations of immense uncertainty. New government guidance has complicated matters by not providing clarity around statutory duties and the legal ramifications of not meeting them during this unprecedented time.

The Children’s Commissioner’s Office is working hard to bring these grey areas into focus, and we have been speaking to frontline social workers about the changes they’re having to make and what it might mean for the children they support.

The Government has advised local authorities to prioritise support and resources for children at the greatest risk. On the ground, this is being managed by raising thresholds for Children In Need assessments and plans, and by social work units making decisions about which families and children to go out and visit. Some social workers have found this strategy helpful because, as one social worker told us, ‘It brings to the top the families and children you are really worried about’. Fewer visits also serves to protect social workers from possible infection and transmission, especially since most were unsure about what PPE was available for them at the office and none had it at home where they were all working from.

However, there are concerns that while the overall risk to children is rapidly rising and intensifying, intervention is shrinking. Social workers we spoke to were clear on what would constitute a high-risk situation and warrant a home visit – Section 47 enquiries which investigate significant harm for example, or children at risk of neglect where unannounced checks on home conditions are needed. However, such prioritisation is likely to lead to signs being missed. Higher thresholds will mean that some assessments don’t happen and issues which were previously unknown go unexposed. More ‘obvious’ and well-defined harms, like physical abuse, may end up being the ones that trigger investigations, while equally if not more harmful emotional abuses, which are more prevalent, may go undetected.

These risks are exacerbated by child protection referrals reportedly being down by 50% in some areas because children are not seeing the professionals, like teachers, that notice and raise concerns.

We should remember that those children out of sight of professionals are those at the greatest risk. DfE figures show that of those children who died or were seriously harmed last year, only 13% were on a child protection plan at the time. The rest were on other types of support, had had statutory involvement previously, or were unknown.

Since the lockdown and social distancing, technology has become more important than ever, with local authorities switching to video calls where possible. Suddenly a lot of extremely delicate interactions have to take place through devices which strip away many of the signs social workers rely on when building relationships and having difficult conversations.

Without in-person visits, social workers have told us they are constrained in what they can do with children. Play, so important to developing trust and putting children at ease so they can talk about their feelings and experiences, becomes much harder. Video calls will also limit what social workers can see. Children’s bodies are partially obscured, only parts of rooms are visible (maybe deliberately so). Social workers can ask for virtual tours around homes – to see in the fridge and cupboards, to see bedrooms – but their ability to observe will always be impaired. The social workers we spoke with said ‘getting a feeling of a home’ is particularly difficult without having all senses to hand. That includes feeling confident that you are speaking to children alone.

Meaningful conversations with parents can also be harder to navigate without use of body language. On top of of all of this are the wider technological challenges. Some families don’t have video enabled devices, others only have one in the household, connectivity / broadband issues are common and what happens if devices break? These are safeguarding dilemmas as much as they are education ones. Solutions are being found by local authorities and phone companies to mitigate these problems and keep families connected but it cannot be done quickly enough.

Safeguarding children is work which relies on picking up the small details which can easily be obscured. The good news is that there are ways of overcoming some of these challenges by staying aware of them. One social worker found it was helpful to map out a clear plan ahead of their calls so they could be more directive about which parts of the home they must see, which children, and where. With forethought, play can also be adapted to the online world – a short quiz or game for example.

A lot comes down to adults staying acutely sensitive to more hidden types of harm in their decision-making. With many vulnerable children not attending school right now despite government guidance urging them to go, the responsibility to make sure they are ok falls to schools as well as social workers. The more adults checking in with children, including trusted teachers and TAs, if only for a quick hello, the greater the safety net around them.

There is also a need for strong and clear government support and guidance to empower professionals in their decision-making and to make sure that families and professionals alike have the resources (e.g. technology, PPE) they need to get through this outbreak.

Covid-19 has presented an opportunity for many child protection teams to embrace technology and evolve in a way that works for both families and social workers. Some social workers have told us they are already seeing the benefits of virtual visits, which can be more convenient and less intrusive for some families. They are discovering that, while home visits will always be necessary, a well-timed video call can have its place too. There will even be times when this is more effective than a home visit – especially a rushed one which is happening just because the visit is ‘due’. For some children, especially teens, communicating via phone or text will suit them far better than an enforced face-to-face.

A future with more flexibility around what constitutes a visit which does not compromise on children’s safety could transform the experience of social services involvement for families and the working conditions of the social workers around them. The future could be a life more calm, stable and ‘normal’ for children – as long as we remember and build upon these experiences when life after Covid-19 starts again.

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