For some children, circumstances at home or in their community mean they face greater risks than others. Some, but not all, of these children will be supported by a social worker. The coronavirus crisis is likely to elevate the risks to these children, and services may be less able to respond to their needs.
School closures and vulnerable children
The closure of schools for most children, while necessary to halt rates of infection, is one reason why some children will be at greater risk. Schools act as crucial sources of safety and support, and act as warning systems for all children, especially those at risk.
At a basic level, schools often provide some children with their only hot meals of the day, but they also provide counselling, or just a place where they can feel safe and settled. Schools also act to alert other professionals when things go wrong.
The emergency measures put in place by the Government mean many children are not in school, and they no longer benefit from this scaffolding. But even for those children who are able to remain in school, it is not clear that the structures that help them will remain – with significant staffing shortages, and classes of different ages and levels grouped together, the environment will be significantly different.
Pressure on social workers
Moreover, the same pressures that have reduced school staffing will also impact on children’s services. Social workers are equally affected by illness and self-isolation, and those who remain at work will be trying to manage larger caseloads with increased complexity. And with the sudden rise in unemployment and financial hardship, it is also highly likely that the level of need will rise too – placing even higher demands on children’s services.
There are also indications that social workers are having to prioritise those children most at risk right now, at the expense of children who may need a lower level of support. This may mean that the needs of children in the latter group remain unmet and, further down the line, they may require a higher level of intervention. We already know from our own research that children’s services have, out of necessity, had to target resources towards child protection and away from early help. This is likely to be exacerbated during the current crisis.
Fewer home visits
Anecdotal feedback is that home visits, which are just one mechanism to safeguard and support children and their families, are being replaced by phone or video calls to avoid further spread of the virus.
Interim results from a survey on the impact of Coronavirus conducted by the British Association of Social Workers confirmed that many social workers are concerned over their ability to safeguard children particularly given the added barriers to meeting with families.
This may mean that families miss out on critical support that can only be delivered in person, but also that developing risks go unnoticed.
But we also know that social workers are resilient, flexible and responsive. There are thousands of children’s social workers across the country who are out on the front line, improvising to support children and their families as best they can.
We have already seen social workers striving to keep children safe in spite of these challenges; working to prioritise those most at need, and coming up with creative solutions like holding family network meetings as video conferences rather than in person, and building on community resources where possible.
Children’s services always work closely with the voluntary sector, and it is clear that in the face of these challenges, social workers will rely on the assistance of food banks, mutual aid organisations, and local networks. For some children and families, a food parcel, benefits advice, and a voice at the end of the phone will be vital over the next few weeks. Others will need much greater support.
What more can be done to support social workers?
- NCB welcomes work by the Government to produce guidance on supporting vulnerable children, in a tight timeframe. However, specialist advice for services facing unprecedented complexity is also likely to be necessary.
- Guidance must be backed by adequate funding for children’s services given the increased strain on their capacity.
- There may be benefits to providing a centralised unit that links social workers not currently in front line roles (some of whom will be on Social Work England’s temporary register) to local authorities who are short of staff.
At NCB we will continue to promote the voices of all children, particularly the most vulnerable, and develop and share resources to aid social workers through this crisis.
Dan Martin is Principal Officer for Social Care at the National Children’s Bureau.