No safety equipment, no hand sanitiser, fewer staff and the likelihood of more cases combined with little understand or appreciation from the public and families using coronavirus as a ‘convenient excuse’ to turn social workers away – the reality of frontline social work practice amidst COVID-19.
Standing the obligatory two metres from the foster carer’s front door, senior practitioner Rita Long* watched as the child, who had been removed from her parents and placed into emergency foster care and who was now moving again to a longer-term foster family, walked tentatively towards what would be her new home.
But due to COVID-19 and the guidance issued to foster carers from their agency that no one including social workers should be allowed entry to their homes during the self-isolating measures introduced by the government, Rita was unable to play her usual role in the settling in process and formal handover.
She was unable to accompany the child inside, unable to reassure her, introduce her to her new family and break the ice in this difficult scenario. Instead, Rita waited two metres from the doorstep of the foster carer’s house while the child was taken inside and shown where she would be staying. Rita received a Skype call from upstairs as she stood outside the house as the foster carer showed her the little girl’s bedroom and where she would be staying.
“It didn’t sit well with me,” Rita admitted. “I’d had to remove her from her parents’ care and the emergency foster placement could not keep her for longer. It wasn’t the foster carer’s fault for not allowing me entry – she was following advice - but I felt awful for the child.”
Sadly, this is the reality of frontline social work during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a frontline social worker in a children’s assessment team in the East of England, the show must go on and safeguarding children must continue and cannot be done from home. As a result, Rita’s child protection work continues, with safeguarding guidance from the government although, as Rita concedes, this is not always possible to adhere to. “I drove the girl to the new foster placement: we weren’t two metres apart, but what do you do?”
Rita became a senior practitioner last year and has been working as a social worker for three years. Based in a referral and assessment team, she supervises those in the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) and students and supports her team manager. Prior to COVID-19 and lockdown, Rita’s team would receive all new referrals whether for children in need or child protection. The cases would be triaged and assessed to see if they met the threshold for intervention.
Red referrals were where a s47 inquiry was likely to happen and pink referrals were those considered a less significant concern. The assessment team would contact families, get consent and carry out assessments to ascertain the level of risk and whether the cases could be transferred to the early help team or whether the family needed longer-term intervention. As a result, cases would only sit with the referral and assessment team for between eight and 12 weeks while investigations were carried out.
The team responds to, on average, one s47 case per day following a strategy discussion and Rita or a member of her team would go and visit the family either alone or with police assistance, depending on the circumstances.
When COVID-19 first hit the headlines, staff were initially told to carry on as normal, given the nature of their work. However, further guidelines were published stipulating that if a social worker showed symptoms of the coronavirus or had underlying health conditions, they should be self-isolating, potentially for up to 12 weeks. Social workers should only go and see families where ‘absolutely necessarily’ although this can be open to interpretation.
“We currently have two vacancies and on top of that we have two members of the team who are self-isolating due to underlying health conditions. They are working at home for 12 weeks and are working on the cases they have already started work on but they cannot take on new cases as obviously there is only so much you can do if you can’t go out and carry out face-to-face assessments. This self-isolation period will enable them to get on top of cases, but as more referrals come in, they will be allocated to the staff who are in the office, so our workloads will likely increase,” explained Rita.
While her caseload is meant to be smaller due to her additional responsibilities as a senior practitioner, she still carries 14-16 cases while when she was a social worker that figure was in the early twenties. She fears it will rise given the current situation.
“There has actually been a decrease in referrals. We used to get a lot from schools, but they are only open for the children that are known to us anyway or key workers’ children. We had a few referrals initially about concerns that children were being left at home alone although we expected there to be many more,” said Rita.
Partner agencies had previously been told that if they had the slightest concern then to refer and social workers would investigate further. However, as those cases were time consuming while the social worker tried to unpick the case, partner agencies have since been informed that unless they have evidence or a serious reason to suspect a child is at risk then not to refer.
“Partner agencies have listened and referrals have gone down, however, there will undoubtedly be an increase in referrals in time as tensions spill over at home due to the restrictions in place. We see a rise in referrals at times like Christmas when families are together, and it is likely we will see the same because of COVID-19.
While the message to only refer where there is evidence is currently being adhered to, things will revert back to how they were and we will see a rise in referrals. With two vacancies and two staff self-isolating, these cases will fall to the four members of the team still in,” said Rita. Two staff work from the office and keep two metres apart while the other two work from home and then those working at home go into the office the following day on a rota meaning they only pick up new cases that come in when they are in the office to ensure the workload is shared fairly.
This could result in cases going out of timescale and while management are accepting of the situation at the moment and are just asking social workers to prioritise the cases of most significant concern, Rita does not know how understanding they will be if this situation carries on for 12 weeks or indefinitely. “We will just have to explain that we are on lockdown and operating with a skeletal staff, we are doing all we can,” she added.
Although guidance is changing most days, currently Rita and her team and trying to carry on as normal as possible. If a family is showing symptoms or have an underlying health issue they are not visiting them, but otherwise they are carrying out face to face assessments with children where it is likely to be a s47 investigation.
“We are following the guidance where we can, keeping two metres apart from the family and washing hands thoroughly before and after any visit. In an ideal world we would use technology, but in reality this does not work,” added Rita.
Rita has called all families on her caseload and while Skype allows Rita to have online face to face chats with families, and she can regularly check on families where cases are already open with phone calls and texts – Rita explains that many families will ignore phone calls but will respond to texts – technology is no replacement for carrying out a face-to-face interview with children at risk of s47 enquiries. Furthermore, in a child protection conference, the chair conceded that a conference call was not working.
“Child protection conferences are pretty hideous for parents,” said Rita. “When you are there in person, there are the parents and then a variety of professionals which can be very daunting. At least if you can see the parents, you can make eye contact, give them a reassuring look, but using conference calling technology, everyone was talking over each other and it’s just not fair on the parents.”
The team may look at using Zoom, an online conference facility where the host signs up to the technology and invites people to join the meeting. You can see everyone in attendance and when someone is talking, that person’s face fills the screen which should prevent people talking over each other.
The lack of interpreters has also proved problematic as usually Rita and her colleagues would visit families with an interpreter but they are experiencing difficulties gaining access to them. A telephone interpreter service has been used Rita says this can be problematic too.
The current situation has also proved a convenient excuse for some families reluctant to accept help from children’s services. “When a s47 is likely, we have contacted families to ask for a visit but they have turned down visits and refused us entry saying that they are on lockdown and adhering to guidance. Any families wanting help would not turn down the opportunity to talk to us so, yes, it has provided some families with a convenient caveat. In normal circumstances, we would enlist the help of the police to talk to these families but, you could argue that these families are safeguarding their children by following guidance and keeping them self-isolated so these are unprecedented times,” explained Rita.
Some families are, however, being proactive. “I was particularly concerned about one mum who I work with who has severe mental health problems as I was worried about how she would cope having her son home from school. I called her and she had already pre-empted this and recognised that it might be too stressful for her and so she had arranged for her son to stay with grandparents, who are under 70. This is a sensible option and a lot of families are doing the best they can,” she explained.
Rita and her team have asked for safety equipment, including face masks but the authority has declined and said that face masks have not been proven to be effective. Instead, Rita and her team are simply urged to keep washing their hands thoroughly as stipulated in guidance and to wipe down their work stations – although they have not been provided with any cleaning products to do so. In fact, they have not even been given hand sanitiser.
At the end of each working day, Rita goes home to her husband and two children. “I am exposed more than a lot of people and I am worried about what I am taking home. I’m doing everything they say in the guidance to protect myself and my family but I heard an interview with the deputy chief medical officer that coronavirus can live on soft furnishings and your clothes for 24 hours and for longer on hard surfaces. So should I be getting in and going in the shower as soon as I get in? If it is on your clothes, are you at risk of cross-contaminating from one family to another and potentially to mine?”
Rita’s children are being home educated by her husband who is working from home. While the children are entitled to education provision due to Rita’s key worker status, she doesn’t want to take the places up – or place her children at any risk – if she can keep them at home. At the same time, her mother is recovering from cancer and had just started to return to normality before the coronavirus outbreak but is now having to take precautionary measures. Her grandmother who lives alone is completely locked-down, not even leaving the house for exercise or shopping which is a concern for Rita.
She also feels that there is little understanding among the general public about the essential safeguarding work they are still doing despite the coronavirus. “I think the public has more appreciation of adult social care workers whereas children’s social work is never seen in a positive light and people don’t realise it is essential work.”
“When I am at work, I just get on with the job in hand. It is when you get those moments to yourself that things start gong through your mind,” said Rita. As social work is already a stressful job and COIVID-19 has exacerbated this ten-fold, Rita’s local authority has reminded all staff of a helpline if they feel their mental health is suffering and send out daily ‘upbeat’ messages to staff.
It hasn’t made Rita consider leaving the profession just yet. “Our authority struggles with recruitment and retention issues and I think we’ve basically got a team who just gets on with it as much as we can.”
* Rita is not her real name.