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Remote social work practice is likely to take off following adjustments to working practices during lockdown

Independent Social Worker Jane Bartlett talks about an assessment she carried out recently completely remotely – including the pros and the cons – and how social work practice could change in the future as a result.

Remote working in social work could really take off following lockdown after social workers have had to change their ways of working while restrictions have been in place.

Independent Social Worker Jane Bartlett, who recently carried out her first
assessment with WillisPalmer entirely remotely, said that while each assessment needed to be taken on a case-by-case basis, there is definitely more scope for working remotely and limiting face-to-face contact in social work.

“There are some assessments that simply cannot be done remotely such as PAMS assessments – you have to be present to explain and to use the tools. Nevertheless, it is my view there is definitely scope for increases in remote working – especially with kinship cases which will be monitored and reviewed, beyond the initial assessment. There is also scope for limiting the amount of face-to-face work you need to carry out in other practice areas, where information might be gathered remotely saving time and money, but not necessarily compromising on the quality of assessment.”

Jane’s experience has come to light as prime minister Boris Johnson is set to ease some restrictions and social workers will increasingly be getting back out into communities and working with the vulnerable families whose issues have been masked during lockdown.

It is anticipated that there will be a spike in cases referred to children’s services as issues come to light where vulnerable children have experienced domestic abuse, mental health problems, substance misuse, neglect and abuse during lockdown, with councils fearing whether they can cope with the demand following years of under investment.

Jane’s case offers a glimmer of hope that during the challenging times ahead, social workers can work creatively with families, minimise face-to-face contact to offer solutions faster to help vulnerable families bearing the scars of lockdown.

Thinking creatively

Jane’s assessment was an intricate kinship care assessment to explore whether a mother and her baby could move to the Channel Islands and benefit from a support network provided by her father’s new family. A mother and baby foster placement had been provided by the local authority for a period of six months, prior to this assessment.

Jane had trained with Suffolk Council, enjoying her various roles there for 14 years, until 2011. She then continued as a locum practice manager in Bedfordshire and Suffolk, before beginning as an Independent Reviewing Officer in the Channel Islands. Jane returned to the UK at the end of 2018, to begin her role as an Independent Social Worker.

Having lived in the Channel Islands for six years until December 2018, Jane was commissioned for this assessment given her familiarity with the laws, regulations and policies to inform the assessment in March. However, the COVID-19 outbreak had begun, resulting in lockdown and meaning Jane’s plans to visit The Channel Islands to meet with the potential kinship family, were undermined. She therefore had to think creatively about how to tackle the task in hand.

Jane said: “I was intending to fly on 30 March but it became too risky. Travelling would expose me to the environment of Gatwick airport for several hours, I would board my flight with others, to subsequently enter the grandparents’ home. Plus, by then, lockdown measures had been announced. I had spoken to a colleague there, suggesting she could be my ‘eyes’ in a visit to the home with me on a video link, in the hope that my colleague could contribute her direct observations. However, my colleague has an underlying health condition so as the pandemic gathered pace, I stood her down; it was just too risky a position for her or the family to be in”.

Observing dynamics

“Prior to proceeding with this case, I had recently video interviewed two families – one of whom I already knew and had met twice before – this time for the purposes of an addendum report. I then carried out a video assessment of a young woman for an immigration case via Skype. The second assessment reassured me further, regarding the quality of information that can be achieved remotely. You are able make eye contact, observe the relationship dynamics between family members, you can assess the tone of their voices, the emotion, you develop a feeling for the client’s environment – is the house tense or chaotic, what are you permitted to notice in the background, is the interviewee anxious, stressed or avoidant? The immigration interview reassured me of the value of proceeding with the case for WillisPalmer, because I was very aware that social distancing restrictions had no end date at the time, and that the baby needed planning decisions to be made sooner rather than later”, said Jane.

This case was an unusual kinship assessment, because the extended family were offering support (including protection by distance from the mother’s violent relationships) as opposed to residence and care, for mother and baby. The family hoped to provide access to an intensive support network whilst the mother raises her baby, in her own independent accommodation. Jane recognised that it was especially important to respect their intention and to respond formally to the court direction if at all possible, to maintain momentum.

Jane’s knowledge of the Channel Islands helped her navigate the services which would have proved more difficult for an ISW with no knowledge of the set up there. For example, while children’s rights are enshrined in all areas of legislation and policy from housing to transport, the cost of accommodation is astronomical, topping the cost of rent in a London borough and there are no social security benefits available to islanders, with less than five years residency. Overcrowding is not legislated against, as in the UK and food and clothing is also expensive in comparison.

Scope for increases in remote working

Jane was complimented on her report by WillisPalmer’s quality assurance team who highlighted that Jane had been resourceful and that you would not know that the assessment had been carried out entirely remotely.

“There were challenges doing it entirely remotely, for example, when the maternal dad and his wife were a little guarded to begin with, but it didn’t take long to get through that. At the end of the day, there is a child at the centre of it all,” said Jane. “But it took less time in the sense that I was not spending several days based in the Channel Islands and it also saved money in terms of travel costs and accommodation.”

“Potential assessments should be considered on a case by case basis, but I would imagine there will be a shift within independent social work practices, emanating from the experiences of navigating the crisis, whilst keeping children safe,” Jane concluded.

Jane’s Top Tips for remote working

• Prepare well, even better than you would if you were doing an assessment face-to-face. You need to have read all the background documents and highlighted the areas of importance as it is different being on the other end of a video link and you don’t have time to sift through documents while on a two-way link - people lose interest.

• Break the sessions down. You may usually spend three hours with a family but sat in front of a computer screen for three hours is tedious and not feasible and the interviewee will lose focus. Do 2 x 90 mins sessions rather than three hours in one go.

• You can still spot signs of a good attachment over video – note the way the mother responds to her child, the tone of voice she uses, is she engaging, is she being gentle, is the baby soothed or fractious? The same instincts that you would use face-to-face can function almost as efficiently, over a video link.

• Rely on your experience. You know what you would be looking for in a face-to-face interview so just use these skills over video link.

• Think of ways to break the ice/put the interviewee at ease right from the get go. Overcoming any awkwardness will help the interview flow better.

• Be prepared for interviewees who may not engage well. Plan how you can get over obstacles and get them talking. If they cut you off, as I experienced, carry on maybe taking a different approach but don’t be put off.

• Don’t have the wool pulled over your eyes. People can put on a façade over interview easier than they can in the flesh – which is also known. Mess can be tidied away behind the computer screen; abusive partners can be in another room. Ask them to take the laptop/tablet/phone round the house to show you the child’s room for example.

• Lastly, make sure you are physically comfortable; that you have some water or a drink to hand and that you are not likely to need the loo for 90 minutes!

Frontline social worker Rita Long* recently told us how her team has had to make adjustments to their working practices – see more here.




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