Across England, youth workers have continued to support children and young people throughout the Covid 19 pandemic. We spoke to 5 youth workers about the challenges facing some of the children they work with.
Meshelle Carmody is driving to visit a care leaver when we speak. She runs the children in care council for East Sussex and is dropping off care packages to her group. Up until now, it’s been Zoom meetings and phone calls, and this is the first time she’s seeing her children face to face.
“When Covid hit we were calling every other day. But then a lot of professionals started calling as well and the foster carers understandably got a bit fed up.
“But now we’ve moved from “checking in” to needing to continue to work.”
And it’s clear there is a new normal.
Phil Priestly runs Cambs Youth Panel.
“We came into this in February without the realisation that there was a fuse burning, making its way directly to us. It was like Pompei, it was on top of us in no time and we were a city engulfed in lava.
“The pace of change was remarkable, professionals were scrambling around in in all directions. And the crisis made it clear what was nice to do compared to what needed to be done.”
Most senior people didn’t have the answer but what became clear for Phil is that all children needed to have computers at home.
Phil recalls that some kids were staying up late to double the space in their house and get some time on the computer to do school work.
Abi Carter works for CHIVA, an organisation which supports children living with HIV. Over the years, her team has formed close trusting relationships with the children they support, and they often think of themselves like a family. This pre-existing relationship made the transition to online work easier; it’s an idea echoed by all the other youth workers we spoke to.
“It all happened so quickly,” says Abi. “We had to come up with safeguarding procedures around zoom very quickly and just start doing it.”
“We had to get information to our young people very quickly. Living with HIV, they had questions about whether they were more likely to get Covid, or if they had to shield. Now it’s a question of mental health support and helping people manage sleep.”
On the Isle of Wight, children’s rights participation officer, Stephen Woodford, found the transition to online engagement fairly seamless.
“Young people are more available. We don’t have to have meetings in the ‘twilight hours’ after school and before dinner.
“And it’s meant more children who live out of borough can join in and participate because they can dial in rather than having to travel.”
There’s no doubt the crisis has opened up some new styles of digital working that there may have been some reticence about in the past. But with no other options, many youth workers have had to grasp the nettle.
The youth workers we spoke with say they are very much finding their way still, and no one is contemplating replacing face to face work. But several youth workers have noted that certain children who never used to engage have been engaging with them digitally.
In fact on the Isle of Wight, they’re looking at a new normal of hybrid meetings: children can turn up in person if they like, but they can also dial in from wherever they live.
Looking ahead to the future, everyone agrees that what children have experienced is a shared life trauma. And as youth workers they need to find a way to reconcile that to the children they work with.
There’s a shared concern amongst these professionals too about the children who haven’t been in a safe and caring environment in this time. We don’t know yet how they will be changed, and what they will come back like.
Phil explains, “I worry we will have a mental health crisis on the other side of it, as people work through what they’ve been through.”
There’s a genuine appetite to learn from this period. But also a warning that we mustn’t look back on pre-covid times with rose tinted glasses.
“We still feel very much in a crisis. The idea of going back to normal feels premature. But if people think going back to how we were is good, that would be a shame.”