The majority of those around the globe are adapting to the new normal of being in lockdown, including our pets who just cannot understand why we are around all of the time! We are enjoying more virtual interaction with our loved ones and finding new hobbies to keep our restless souls occupied.
The impact of lockdown and the importance of coping mechanisms
For a number of people, this lockdown will have grave and serious implications for their physical and psychological wellbeing. Each day, the media reports on the increased number of people feeling unsafe in their homes during lockdown, whether that be as a result of domestic violence or child abuse, with charities reporting an influx in calls to their helplines. The BBC reported on 30 April 2020 that the NSPCC received a 20% increase in calls from adults concerned about child abuse – to view the report, please click here. Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, reported a 25% increase in calls since lockdown began – to view, please click here.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, published “We’re all in this together?” on 25 April 2020 identifying those vulnerable children who will need help during the lockdown period. For the families facing difficulties, the reality of lockdown “could be what tips them from being able to cope, to reaching crisis point” and consequently puts those vulnerable children at greater risk of suffering significant harm during this pandemic and likely thereafter. Childline reported on 27 March 2020 that they had provided over 900 counselling sessions with children relating to the impact of the pandemic.
With the effects of social distancing on our physical and mental wellbeing becoming more evident as lockdown continues, UNICEF are reportedly gathering information on how best to support young people. Whilst evidence-based methods are reviewed, more generic coping mechanisms, such as taking daily exercise and eating a balanced diet, will be essential in keeping minds and bodies active and protected from decline. Mind have produced a wealth of information offering support to those struggling with their ‘mental wellbeing during lockdown’ which can be accessed here.
Government guidance on Covid-19 conditions
The Government has issued guidance on how Local Authorities should approach their duties in “Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for local authorities on children’s social care” – 3 April 2020. The guidance provides wide scope for local authorities to use their professional judgement in making decisions in the best interests of those vulnerable children and adults to whom they owe a duty of care. It may appear, on the face of it, that the DfE are relaxing the obligations owed by local authorities to provide care and protect vulnerable individuals, stating “where authorities need to deviate from standard practice and statutory requirements, we expect that they will keep clear records to capture the rationale and risk assessment for that.”
This ambiguity has prompted a call for clarity from childrens’ charities Just for Kids Law, Children’s Rights Alliance for England and Article 39. Their letter dated 17 April 2020, which can be found here, highlights that the guidance “wrongly implies that local authorities will be acting lawfully when breaching their statutory duties… [and creates] risks exposing local authorities to legal challenge.” A response is eagerly awaited.
Whilst the Government has provided an extra £1.6 billion of funding for local authorities to include provision for children’s social care, the Government guidance falls short of providing direction to those undertaking vital frontline roles in keeping children safe. Without such direction and clarity, there is the potential for social workers’ decisions made during this time to be placed under scrutiny in the post-coronavirus world.
Implications for social worker practices
A large part of a social worker’s role when working with families and children at risk is to visit the family to assess, monitor and observe the home environment. In a new ‘normal’ where visiting another person in their home now feels like a distant past-time, the guidance provided by BASW, the British Association of Social Workers, advises visits should only be made:
- When risk assessment deems it absolutely necessary to prevent significant harm; and/or
- To fulfil a statutory duty which cannot be fulfilled in any other way; and/or
- When risks of infection to staff and people visited have been mitigated in accordance with this guidance and national protocols.
Care Leavers are also in danger of being ‘forgotten’ during this time. As they move towards independence, input from their Personal Adviser will be crucial, as well as the support provided by the Leaving Care package. Local Authorities have a duty to ensure Care Leavers’ health, financial, accommodation and educational needs and wishes, among others, are met. Whilst the Government has identified that technology will play an important role with keeping in touch with Care Leavers and progressing their pathway plans, social workers will need to ensure all Care Leavers (including those not able to access the necessary technology) are provided for. Stability is critical for young adults leaving care, who often don’t have a strong family unit to fall back on.
An anonymous social worker spoke to The Guardian on 2 April 2020 about her experience undertaking an assessment in a family’s garden after being denied access to their home. Another expressed her concerns at who would be held accountable if something went wrong within the high-risk families she works with. In addition, foster carers and adoptive parents will also be suffering the additional pressures relating to the impact of the lockdown. Adoption UK published a lockdown report on 4 May 2020 revealing that 85% of “care experienced” children are not receiving support in respect of their status and 50% of parents and carers say their child is experiencing emotional distress and anxiety. The report calls for additional funding for schools to ease the transition when these children return to their classrooms. The decrease in availability of third-party interventions, from structured therapeutic sessions to after-school clubs, will affect those who already struggle with mental health difficulties and self-harming behaviours. The Government announced on 10 April 2020 that the Adoption Support Fund, which provides support to adoptive families directly through Local Authorities and external services, will receive £8 million of funding to meet the needs of families arising from coronavirus. Where possible, families should also be signposted to partner and third-party charities and services to provide advice and support. Social workers will be expected to fulfil their duties to these families despite the current conditions and will be arguably even more pivotal in ensuring the children and families are suitably supported.
The Family Courts are ensuring provisions are in place to undertake virtual hearings, where possible. The HM Courts and Tribunal Service have provided guidance on “work that must be done” and this includes applying for Emergency Protection and Interim Care Orders. It is reassuring these applications will still be heard, however, the hindrance Covid-19 poses on social workers progressing cases to this point (such as Section 47 investigations) may cause delays in such applications being made. The Coronavirus Act 2020 allows for retired social workers who left the register after 18 March 2018 to be temporarily registered as social workers for the duration of the “emergency” in an attempt to ease the burden.
The difficulty in identifying children at risk in lockdown conditions
What about those children who are now at risk of significant harm due to the pandemic, who may fall under the radar of the social services system, for example, those subjected to unreported domestic violence and living in crowded homes? Referrals from schools, sports club, friends and family are vital in the fight to protect children’s welfare. This is evidenced in the estimated 50% decrease in child protection referrals reported during the pandemic. When comparing this to the increase in calls to the NSPCC pertaining to fears of child abuse, it would suggest those most vulnerable in our community may not be able to access the help they require. Social care operations rely to an extent on family cooperation, which will not be freely given by those who are concerned about Covid-19 being brought into their homes and thus provide an easy excuse for uncooperative families.
The DfE confirmed that as of 17 April 2020, only 5% of vulnerable children are attending school, a protective factor for many ‘at-risk’ children. The Government guidance on this point – published 19 April 2020 – “encourages vulnerable children and young people to attend educational settings unless they have underlying health conditions that puts them at severe risk.” Of course, those most at risk are the least likely to be voluntarily requesting school placements.
Local Authorities can take action against parents if it appears their child is not receiving an education, although whether this will happen during the pandemic is yet to be seen. In the meantime, there are undoubtedly many children who remain at home in an unsafe environment.
As social workers face the difficult challenge of keeping children and vulnerable adults safe in lockdown, clarity from the Government would be welcomed to ensure duties are met and appropriate safeguards are in place. Failing which, local authorities could face allegations that their social workers failed to meet their statutory duties during the lockdown and indeed afterwards when a huge backlog will undoubtedly cause delays. The challenges for Local Authorities are wider than their obligations owed to Looked After Children and vulnerable adults though, as they grapple with the difficult balance of protecting their own front-line workers for whom they have a duty of care, with ensuring those at risk in society continue to receive monitoring and intervention. Self-care has always been essential to social worker practice, but as the pandemic throws normal processes into disruption, this becomes more challenging.
Social worker procedures and practices will inevitably require adaptation to respond. Our advice to Local Authorities and those providing front-line safeguarding is to ensure all decisions are documented and supported by relevant risk analysis and justification. These risk assessments will need to be kept under regular review and appropriately peer reviewed.
Even when the world returns to a new ‘normal’, these challenges are unlikely to immediately diminish: increased volumes of work, on-going challenges with social distancing and intolerable pressures on families who have struggled during the pandemic are all factors that are likely to impede social worker practice in the immediate future. As the pandemic continues to unfold and a new sense of normal emerges, all any professional can be expected to do is follow statutory and regulatory guidance, risk assess and record all of the decision making processes.
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