Report outlines how local authorities have managed during the pandemic, challenges they have faced, lessons they’ve learned and fears for a spike in referrals post lockdown
Children’s services departments received fewer referrals requiring a children’s social care response in the weeks immediately following the introduction of lockdown measures, although they increased as time in lockdown went on, research has found.
Higher numbers of referrals were associated with domestic abuse and more cases than in ‘normal’ times were said to involve a higher level of complexity, the research by King’s College London on the experiences of children’s social care in 15 English local authorities managing during COVID-19 found.
“Overall, during April and May most authorities had conducted fewer investigations, instigated fewer proceedings, created fewer child protection plans and placed fewer children in care than in a similar period in 2019. There were indications that this was changing and that the number of children taken into care in some authorities was rising,” said the report.
The research, carried out with NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce, captures the responses of 15 local authorities to the lockdown that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. All respondents were senior managers in their agencies, including directors and assistant directors of children’s services, heads of service and principal child and family social workers.
The work was conducted between 11 May and 5 June 2020 so the changes that had been introduced had been in place for around two months.
‘Unacceptable’ for new referrals to be taken entirely remotely
Between 80 and 100 per cent of social workers in the authorities were working from home. Some office space was open and specific teams, such as those carrying out duty and assessment tasks, were more likely to be working from there but on rotas to enable social distancing. Meetings, supervision and catch ups were held virtually.
“Overall it was thought that the transition from office to home had been successful although it was widely recognised that some social workers had struggled to be able to balance working from home with the responsibilities of caring for families or working in an environment that was not conducive to carrying out confidential and stressful tasks,” said the report.
Over the two months, expectations were being realigned and practice adjusted, including how best to oversee and quality assure social workers’ contacts with children and their families, many of which were being done at a distance.
Most contacts with families were virtual. Where social workers made home visits, they were usually advised to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), but there was an exception in one authority where the guidance stated that this was not necessary if there was no confirmed COVID-19 case in the household and where social distancing could be maintained.
It was deemed “unacceptable” to adopt a completely virtual approach to a new referral, even when the family was known to children’s social care.
Young people embraced technology
Nearly all authorities’ risk assessment procedures guided decisions on whether a piece of work should be carried out virtually or in person and were often decided through a RAG (red, amber, green) rating, which determined the risk posed to the child or young person based upon the information available.
Visits were typically carried out on doorsteps and in gardens. If it was necessary to see inside the home this was then done by video, as was the case if social workers were doing this from home.
There were no reports of feedback on these changes having been collected consistently from parents and children/young people. The respondents’ impression was that most families had accepted the change while many young people had embraced the opportunity to use technology to connect with social workers. There were suggestions that it was harder for younger children to adjust and there were problems where parents did not have access to smartphones and other technology.
In all the authorities, contact centres had been closed to families for at least some of the time. Contact between children and birth parents was predominantly virtual, usually with the support of courts, parents and foster carers.
In most cases the concerns that a combination of placement breakdown and foster care illness and/or shielding would lead to a critical placement shortage were not realised, although some authorities had been under more pressure than others.
Several authorities had plans to convert council buildings into residential accommodation if the demand for placements outstripped supply. However, nationally, mother and baby placements and placements for older children and young people had been more difficult to secure.
Authorities had usually managed any increase in demand by placing children and young people with family and friends.
Local authorities had provided considerable support to foster carers, many of whom were shielding or self-isolating and a significant proportion were aged over 70.
There were concerns about care leavers feeling isolated
Children’s charity Barnardo’s reported in June that the number of children needing foster care had risen by 44 per cent during the pandemic while the number of enquiries from people looking to become foster parents for the charity fell by 47 per cent.
Authorities in this study had not experienced this, with most saying that the number of children in care had remained stable and in some cases fallen considerably.
Where young people did not comply with the call to stay at home, placements were put at risk and were the source of considerable concern to local authorities as these young people could then be at risk of exploitation and gang involvement.
Authorities had abided by the request from the Secretary of State for Education that no one left local authority care during this time. Care leavers were allowed to stay in their placements or semi-independent living arrangements if that was what they wished to do, although there were examples of managed moves. Leaving care teams were particularly concerned about care leavers who were already living alone and who could feel isolated, particularly if they did not have access to a smartphone or computer.
The number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people (UASYP) arriving in the country increased during this period, which had posed particular challenges for ‘gateway’ authorities but only a few local authorities reported additional accommodation problems as a result of looking after this group. Again, social workers raised concerns about them feeling isolated.
Improved attendance at child protection conferences
Overall the residential sector was reasonably stable, although it had been subject to various strains. When young people moved into the sector during this time it was often because their behaviours could not be managed by parents or carers, which could destabilise the setting they entered. Similar behaviours sometimes overwhelmed the staff in these homes and it then proved difficult for the local authority to find alternative placements.
There was further strain in the residential workforces when staff were ill or vulnerable.
Multi-agency working was an area which was generally regarded as successful and gave hope that it would lead to permanent changes and improved understanding of one another’s professional responsibilities. The research found that close working relationships had been developed with public health services, stimulated by the pressures at the outset to determine responses to COVID-19.
There was improved attendance at child protection conferences and it was widely accepted that virtual attendance at such meetings would become an accepted feature of practice.
Some authorities reported that recruitment had gone well during this period whereas others had found it more difficult with disappointing responses to advertisements, including those for newly qualified staff. When it looked as though a lockdown would be likely, some authorities had acted quickly to persuade agency staff to avoid employment uncertainty and accept permanent posts which had depleted the number of agency staff available.
Concern about referrals post lockdown
The government had pledged an additional £3.2 billion to support local authorities through this time. Although informants were not aware of the overall costs that they had incurred during this period, they estimated that the amount they would receive would cover between 25 and 50 per cent of what they had spent.
Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) was said to have been slow to appear and then it came frequently and in volumes but failed, for example, to be explicit about the changes, which required staff to spend considerable amounts of time identifying and updating documents.
The respondents praised the ADCS, LGA and Ofsted for being supportive during this period.
Towards the end of the period when the data were collected, lockdown restrictions were easing and local authorities were planning for the coming months, including exploring the use of buildings and the number of members of staff who could be accommodated at any one time. It was assumed that work would be a combination of working from home, face-to-face and team working.
“In all the feedback from authorities there was a note of caution about a future when the extent of harm to many children would be revealed after many months when it had been hidden. It was expected that the number of referrals would rise rapidly once schools reopened,” the report warned.
In terms of lessons for the future, the report concluded that a proportion of meetings and other interactions will continue to be conducted virtually but these should be monitored to determine what it is effective and efficient to do and in what particular circumstances.
The use of technology in contacting parents should be approached with caution, taking account of the family’s ability to access it and their confidence in working in this way. The potential of technology to improve social workers’ engagement with young people has been established, but it is important to recognise that it will not work for everyone and there will be those who do not wish to use it in some circumstances.
It will be important to build on positive developments that have emerged such as those in relation to multi-agency working, the report concluded.
The 15 local authorities in the research were Bath and North East Somerset, Blackburn, Cornwall, Coventry, Hampshire, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, London Borough of Lewisham, North Tyneside, Northumbria, Salford, Stockport, Suffolk, Wakefield, Wokingham and York.
Managing through COVID-19: the experiences of children’s social care in 15 English local authorities