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Frontline social worker's fears for families as lockdown extends

Frontline social worker Rita Long talks about how her team is adapting to new ways of working, how social distancing is not always possible in social work and her fears for the next few weeks.

The rise in domestic abuse since lockdown measures were introduced to try and contain the spread of COVID-19 are not resulting in a rise in referrals to children’s services in some areas, WillisPalmer has learned.

On 6 April, domestic abuse charity reported a 25% hike in the number of calls to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline since lockdown measures were introduced and traffic to the charity’s website rose by 150%.

However, by 9 April, the number of calls to the helpline had risen 120% over night while traffic to the website had soared by 700%.

Scourge on society

Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive of Refuge said: “This is an enormous increase which underscores what we already know – domestic abuse is a scourge on society and must be addressed. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. Domestic abuse is a crime and it must be addressed.

“We know that some forms of abuse are not as widely recognised as others. Domestic abuse is not just physical violence – it can be misuse of technology, economic abuse and coercive control. We hope that women seeing our public communications will feel reassured and supported and recognise that what they are experiencing is against the law and not acceptable. Women are not alone and Refuge is here to provide support.

“Domestic abuse is a crime, and it is a choice a man makes. Only he is responsible for changing his violent behaviour,” she added.

Following this, the Home Secretary Priti Patel launched a new public awareness raising campaign highlighting that if anyone is at risk of, or experiencing domestic abuse, help is still available.

The campaign, under the hashtag #YouAreNotAlone, aims to reassure those affected by domestic abuse that support services remain available during this difficult time. The Home Secretary also announced that the Home Office is working with charities and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to provide an additional £2 million to immediately bolster domestic abuse helplines and online support.

Massive worry

Yet speaking exclusively to WillisPalmer, frontline social worker Rita Long* said that while domestic abuse is a huge concern for social workers in the authority she works at in the East of England, they have not seen an increase in domestic-abuse related referrals since lockdown measures were implemented.

“Normally, when we are dealing with families where there is domestic abuse, we find out through the schools. Women don’t want to tell their friends what is going on and so we usually find out if a child goes into school and tells a friend or a teacher and we get the referral that way,” explained Rita.

“The problem at the moment is that there are so few children going to school as they are just open for key workers’ children or those children already known to us, so there is no outlet for a child to say something which is a massive worry for us,” she added.

“You can imagine what is going on, there are families experiencing the toxic trio, their mental health is getting worse during lockdown, substance abuse is likely increasing and families are cooped up – there is no outlet. It’s great that the helpline is there, but we are not getting any referrals from them,” she added.

Half capacity

When WillisPalmer last spoke to Rita at the end of March, she told us that her team had actually seen a decrease in the number of referrals as most of the referrals had previously come from schools.

Furthermore, as Rita’s team was operating on half capacity – in the team of eight there were two vacancies and two social workers had underlying health conditions so were told to self-isolate for 12 weeks – the message to partner agencies had changed. They had previously been told that if they had the slightest concern then to refer a child to children’s services 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,” said Rita.

However, since then, referrals have started to creep up slightly, although caseloads are manageable. “We did expect a rise in referrals following the bank holiday where families were holed up, it was nice weather so some people may have been drinking more and we thought there would be more domestic abuse referrals, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected,” said Rita.

Impossible to observe social distancing

While Rita’s team is not getting the referrals from schools, they are still receiving referrals from the police, midwives, hospitals, anonymous phone calls and the NSPCC. They are also taking calls where people are asking advice and as to whether certain cases are meeting thresholds. The team is still being told to prioritise cases and where a S47 is likely, social workers are going out and visiting families.

“We check on the phone beforehand if anyone in the house has COVID-19 or displaying any symptoms and if not then we carry out a visit, although it is impossible to observe social distancing. Last week I had to carry out a visit to a family and the mum wanted her mum and partner present for support, then there were two police officers and myself in a flat and so it was just not possible to keep 2m apart,” explained Rita.

Last time we spoke to Rita, some families had been using social distancing as a way of evading contact with social workers. However, Rita said that at Easter they get Easter eggs donated from a charity and social workers deliver them to families and even the most resistant families were happy to come to the door to receive the eggs and have a doorstep check.

Getting better at adapting

One positive in the current situation for Rita’s team is that because there are fewer referrals at the moment, they have been able to catch up on work, go through their caseloads and close cases which needed closing but where the social worker didn’t have the time to do the procedure.

Rita also says that technology is being used much more effectively and social workers are adapting all the time to new ways of working. “We had a child protection conference recently and previously we had used technology but it just did not work as people were talking over each other and it’s not very nice for the parent being on their own during the process which can feel quite intimidating.

This time, the conference chair, the parent, minute taker and I were in the room and the other professionals called in. This worked really well, the mum was present and had support, but it wasn’t a packed room. We are definitely getting better at adapting as we are using different practices more,” she added.

The message from management is clear that social workers should only carry out a visit if it is essential. However, Rita says that it takes a conscious effort to think ‘can I do this a different way?’ and think about other options being “creatures of habit”.

The team hasn’t been provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but they can request it if they are going to see a family where someone has tested positive for coronavirus or are exhibiting symptoms.

People won’t accept this forever

The mental health of the workforce is currently bearing up despite the stressful situation. “I think it will hit people afterwards. At the moment we are just in the cycle of getting through it but I think afterwards people will be quite affected by it, thinking ‘what if?’ At the moment we are just accepting it,” she says.

“It does worry me. My children are off school being home educated in self-isolation and I am out and I worry what I’m bringing home,” she says.

She also fears for the next few weeks, saying that while professionals and families could accept being on lockdown for three weeks, now this has been extended for a further three weeks, it could exacerbate issues within families and raise tensions.

Furthermore, while partner agencies have accepted advice for the moment on only referring when there is hard evidence of neglect or abuse, this cannot be indefinite.

“People won’t accept it forever. They were referring to us before and need and expect a service. Referral rates will soon return to how they were before COVID-19 and, as a result of lockdown measures, are likely to rise considerably,” she concluded.

*Rita Long is not her real name.






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