By Mark Willis
As every other school, local authority, solicitors, children’s home and business across the UK, WillisPalmer has had to make some changes to our working practices during the current climate of COVID-19.
This week, we have successfully carried out psychological assessments entirely remotely and still to the high standard you have come to expect from WillisPalmer, not only speeding up the process due to travel being taken out of the equation, but also saving the customer money. Feedback from those commissioning us has been extremely positive and we will continue to provide this service where it is appropriate to do so.
We continue to provide all our services to support local authority social workers, including independent assessments by expert social workers – some of which are, again, carried out remotely - and are quoting a timescale of 10-12 weeks on all new assessments.
Our Child Abuse Litigation Service is running and our main office is manned by a skeletal team meaning that we can observe social distancing rules and we convene regularly through Zoom technology video conferencing.
As part of our response to the crisis we are also increasing our monthly Children First newsletter to a weekly version to keep you informed about all issues currently affecting the children’s services sector. We will also be covering some of the many positive stories that have come out of this challenging situation to help us, as a sector, celebrate the remarkable work that many of our colleagues are doing and to shine light in what can feel like dark times.
The main aim is that WillisPalmer can be of help to local authorities and solicitors as and when they need us. As we look towards the future, I sincerely hope that we will soon be able to get back out into the community so that we can complete those assessments that require face-to-face contact.
As children’s services professionals, we are well aware of the enormous strain that lockdown measures will be having on already vulnerable families. Referrals are down at the moment, but this is a direct knock on effect of schools being the most likely source to make a referral, yet educational settings are only open to children of key workers and vulnerable families already known to children’s services.
That said, alarmingly, the latest figures from the Department for Education show that just 5 per cent of children classed as ‘vulnerable’ were in school on Friday 17 April 2020 meaning vulnerable children are at home in dangerous situations without access to the refuge of school and potentially not seeing their social worker, if work is being done with families remotely.
Just this week, I was interviewed by The Parliamentary Review for a series of seven articles on the issue of the ‘toxic trio’ and how lock down measures will be exacerbating these problems. Mental health problems will be worsening under social distancing and a lack of social interaction, some families may be self-medicating anxiety and depression with drugs and alcohol and tempers are fraying under the unique and challenging times.
We know that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge have soared a massive 120 per cent overnight on the 6 April. But having spoken to a number of our local authority colleagues, this has not resulted in a rise in referrals to children’s services. One frontline social worker told us that the reason children’s services are not seeing a rise in referrals is because women are often too fearful to speak out and so the issue only comes to light when children tell a friend or teacher at school.
Social workers are being told to prioritise cases, but these cases are priorities – it is just more difficult for social workers to hear about them. But it is costing lives - the number of women killed by men during the first three weeks of the government’s lockdown is the highest it’s been for at least 11 years.
Social workers are doing an amazing job, as always, but rising to the massive challenges posed by COVID-19 and, as usual, are the unsung heroes. We applaud all that they are doing working during difficult times and adapting working practices to keep children safe. But local authorities, like us, know that when some of the lockdown measures are lifted – which could be as early as June – the referrals will be inundating children’s services departments.
Women having been subjected to physical/emotional/sexual abuse or coercion for weeks during lockdown will be planning their escape when there is a window of opportunity to grasp. People with mental ill health, currently too nervous to attend doctor’s surgeries amid the pandemic, will need help and support. Those self-medicating with drugs and alcohol will need intervention. And those children who have experienced severe neglect and/or abuse over the past few months will need the expertise of social workers to work with them and ensure they are safeguarded.
It is certainly not going to be an easy time for the children’s services sector following lockdown, but it is a challenge which, of course, they will rise to as they always do, no matter what is thrown at them. And WillisPalmer will continue to provide help and support in whatever way we can.