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“Some vulnerable children at risk of exploitation are thriving in lockdown”

WillisPalmer has previously reported on the pressures facing frontline social workers in lock down.

Frontline social worker Rita Long* told us how her team were under-staffed with two vacancies and two social workers self-isolating due to underlying health conditions and they were operating with no PPE although they could request it if they were visiting families where someone was showing symptoms.

Referrals were down with so few children in schools as most of their referrals used to come through schools, the team were operating social distancing in the office and community as much as they could and they were trialing various forms of technology and alternative ways of working to stay in touch with families

Furthermore, Rita shared her concerns for vulnerable families as lockdown was extended.

“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 domestic abuse helpline is there, but we are not getting any referrals from them,” she added.

Rita also raised concerns for post lockdown and when children go back to school fearing there could be a massive rise in referrals for families who have been ‘hidden’ during lockdown.

But in a team in Sheffield City Council who work with highly vulnerable children at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation, they have seen some children thrive during the lockdown period.

Two social workers in Sheffield, Charlotte and Cath, have highlighted how they have managed to adapt their work during lockdown.

Charlotte and Cath both work with young people at risk of both sexual and criminal exploitation and who are deemed as the most high-risk young people in Sheffield.

They both work with young people every week to keep them safe from harm. This can involve spending hours at a time working 1:1 with the young people to build up a relationship, supporting the young person to engage with other professionals, for example, the youth justice team, and helping the young person to access positive activities. The key to the work Charlotte and Cath undertake is to build a trusting working relationship with these young people, who often have been unable to engage or trust any adult previously.

Both Charlotte and Cath have had to adapt how they work pretty quickly during lockdown restrictions and be creative in the ways that they continue to engage and support their young people.

Cath said: “Things have changed. Our days are spent doing doorstep visits, organising food parcels and vouchers, WhatsApp chats, delivering and shopping for food for families, online court hearings as well as regular catch ups with our team.”

A lot of their time is spent liaising with schools and education providers to try and give the young people the best chance of engaging with education during this time.

“One really lovely thing has been to see the kids supporting us. There’s definitely been a shift to a more equal relationship, where they are asking us if we are ok, and are grateful for our help and support,” she added.

“For some of our young people, having to have a break from seeing the outside world has meant that they have thrived. One of our teenagers has been doing her maths and English online, and she was highly commended on a creative writing piece that she did – I was so proud of her. Lockdown has really given her back a focus in life and she is really engaging with us now.

“For others it’s been much more difficult, particularly for young people who have no family support. One young woman has a toddler who has been back in her care for the past year. She has found lockdown quite isolating as she is not currently able to attend her apprenticeship with the council. We have been helping with extra food shops, and lots of doorstep visits and phone calls just to make sure they are ok. We also arranged for her child to continue attending nursery so that his routine was as normal as possible,” said Cath.

Charlotte added: “I actually look forward to Mondays and getting out and about. Also because I’m worried about the kids we work with and I want to make sure we are there supporting them.

“And we’ve seen some really special moments. A friend of mine manages a pizza company and one Friday night he gave us 10 free pizzas to give out to the young people. It was a really special moment and brightened up the young people’s evenings as well as ours.”

Cath added: “We’ve some of the most amazing and difficult conversations over the phone and through video calls. I feel it has allowed some of our young people to express how they are feeling and be more open about their thoughts and feelings. However, others have found it much more difficult, and have struggled with the lack of face to face visits, so for those young people we have put on Personal Protective Equipment and continued to visit face to face each week."

“If any of our young people are reading this, we are so proud of how you are handling this. You have managed so well in such difficult circumstances,” Cath concluded.

Charlotte and Cath work for Sheffield City Council

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