Just as in health care, the resilience of social care services has been tested by Covid-19, as services strive to function as usual against the threats of illness, staff shortages, and increased workloads. This includes residential children’s homes which have had to adapt quickly to the crisis, with support from government guidance as it has been released.
Thankfully, fears about unmanageable staff shortages across residential homes have so far not come to pass. A survey by the Independent Children’s Home Association (ICHA) found that none had more than 20% of staff off work shielding, with 1 in 4 having none. Only 13% of homes had over a fifth of their staff self-isolating. According to homes, fewer children are going missing from care since the lockdown began; 34% of homes have seen this decrease compared with 16% seeing a slight increase. There is also no evidence as yet to suggest that the rate of children coming into care has risen, putting extra strain on homes.
To better understand how things were working, we spoke to young people in children’s homes to find out how they were coping and being supported throughout the lockdown.
In our conversations, ‘boring’ was by far the most common description of young people’s feelings. Like other children, they were eager for the lockdown to ease, yet also accepting of the current circumstances and the importance of staying inside to protect others. In their words:
“It’s not just people in care, it’s everyone. You’ve just got to put up with it haven’t you?”
“Everyone should stay in and listen to government ‘cos then it will be over quicker”
Even children who were struggling with the lockdown could understand its inevitability. One young person told us, “I’ve not been myself”, that the change in routine was making her body dizzy and giving her headaches and panic attacks. Despite this she said, “it is what it is. I try not to think about it”, and felt better by speaking to friends and family on the phone.
We heard some positive examples of young people using the lockdown to their advantage, by learning new skills which would help them later in life. One girl with plans to study hair and beauty at college was doing the nails and make-up of staff members. A boy explained he was pleased that he could now get a BBQ going. Others were developing new healthy routines with the extra time on their hands, like cleaning out the chickens each day and cooking for others in the home.
Understandably, children were eager for things to “hurry up and blow over” so they could spend time with family and friends again. That said, they were still in regular phone contact with those they cared about, as well as their social workers. There were even signs of relationships improving in close quarters. Staff talked about residents getting on better, including one young person who had starting talking to another resident for the first time since December. One home had invested heavily in activities just before the lockdown – buying ping pong tables, pool tables, DVDs, jigsaws, outdoor games – which gave young people more ways to hang out together.
We also spoke to staff in children’s homes. Morale was high and managers talked about being blown away by the willingness of staff, for example, to self-isolate in the home for 2 weeks if someone became ill. Staff talked about being motivated by the children, who did not have the same privileges as them:
“Everyone recognises that it’s such a strange time. We can go home, but the kids can’t. We can see family but they can’t”
Homes had taken steps to limit footfall, for example by not using external staff and by limiting the number of staff that worked in the home. Sometimes social workers would visit in the garden or through the window, but usually these visits were via phone or video call. One home had bought thermometers and would check staff and children every day. PPE, however, had not been made available for all homes, but the absence of sickness meant this had not caused concern.
One issue that came up, is the risk that lockdown will make homes more reluctant to accept children who are seen as more difficult to manage. Roughly over half of private children’s homes seem to be accepting new referrals, which leaves a significant number which are not, to minimise risk.
Perceived ‘risky’ behaviour from vulnerable young people could be a barrier to finding an appropriate home for them. One manager admitted that they would avoid taking on “someone who’s running, someone who’ll disrupt” so as to keep their staff and children safe. More widespread flouting of social distancing rules could make homes wary of welcoming new teens and leave this age-group more vulnerable as a result.
The main concern for staff was continuing to manage as lockdown continued, and as it began to ease. One home was bracing itself for the task of bringing back previous house rules and routines which were relaxed over the lockdown. One manager was noticing cracks starting to appear in the resolve of children as they grew tired of the restrictions and went to see their friends. This had happened infrequently so far but was expected to become more common as time went on and frustrations increased. With so much uncertainty still, we will continue to hear from looked after children affected by Covid-19 restrictions and its impacts, as we enter the next phase of the pandemic.