Skip to main content

The challenge of child protection during lockdown

Reflections from two social workers working with children and families during the pandemic

Coronavirus, social work, stories, videos, poems, photographs
Sian Miljkovic (left) and Emily Hill

Being a child protection social worker during the COVID-19 pandemic presents many challenges. Working from home during lockdown is one of them.

“The other day I had to attend court virtually and ended up sitting in my bedroom for four hours with the door closed to make it confidential because I don’t have a proper office at home,” says mother of three Sian Miljkovic.

“I try to explain to my children that if I am on my phone you need to leave me alone – I find myself walking around the house trying to get away from them while having a conversation.

“The trickiest thing is balancing work with the needs of my kids who are bored and don’t understand fully what is going on.

“I’m trying to manage their homework at three different key stages while having an increased workload. I am having to take time out during the day to help my kids or a take them out for a walk or just to be with them. This week I have done two nights where I didn’t finish until 2am.”

Pressure on families

Like many social workers, Sian worries about the additional stress lockdown is placing on families and the extra pressure on social work teams.

“All the statutory duties are still there, they have not gone anywhere, but the services that keep placements going have closed down. CAMHS aren’t seeing children at the moment and the children on my caseload are predominantly CAMHS placements.

“Everything we used as universal support for families has dropped away.”

Without this, says Sian, safeguarding risks have increased.

“Previously I could sit with my caseload and say ‘I don’t need to see this child’ because I know they have been at school or had this appointment so I can put it off until next week.

“Now I can’t put anything off because nobody is seeing these children and families. That feels risky. If the worse was to happen to one of my children and there was a serious case review, what would the considerations be around the circumstance at the moment? It makes you feel quite unsafe.”

The 'surge' to come

Emily Hill, who works in a child assessment and safeguarding team in Hampshire, believes the workload for social workers will be even greater after the public health crisis is over.

“I think we are going to see a huge surge. When the schools were told to close we had an influx of referrals because they were holding onto these cases.

“Domestic abuse more than anything is going to be the biggest challenge for a lot of services when everything goes back to normal.”

While understanding the reasons for the lockdown, Emily adds: “There is public health and then there are children whose lives are potentially at risk in their homes because they are now locked up with perpetrators of violence, with parents with drug and alcohol addictions, parents with really poor mental health who can’t access support services they had before.

“Removing that frontline and face-to-face contact has such a dire impact.”

Sian also believes workloads will increase for social workers when things get back to normal for other services. “The nature of what we do can be dealing with child abuse. That is a behaviour that happens behind closed doors.

“My concern is that we are about to reach the peak of this virus and lockdown may end in a few weeks and that is the point we start to uncover what is really happening for the families and children we are trying to protect and our workload will increase no end.”

Personal safety

Emily and Sian both have worries for their own safety as they continue to work during the pandemic.

“We have never been issued with PPE or anything like that,” says Emily. “I did a section 47 joint visit with the police a few weeks ago. It was only when we got to the house that we asked the family if they were self-isolating.

“When we do go out on a visit there isn’t anything to keep us safe other than common sense.”

Emily thinks it’s right NHS staff should be prioritised for PPE but she adds: “As social workers we always get missed. The NHS do a fantastic job and should get their PPE, but we are also frontline workers and we also need the same level of protection because our job entails going into people’s homes. I think we should at least be offered the very basics.”

Sian adds: “With the help of my husband I have provided my own PPE because the local authority just couldn’t get hold of stuff.

“I have gloves, hand sanitiser and a mask but I don’t know if it is approved - it is a plasterers’ mask because it was all I could get hold of.

“There are a vast amount of COVID-19 symptomatic people who aren’t in hospital that people outside the NHS are having contact with. Those workers tend to be local authority representatives and social workers.”

Like Emily, she feels frustrated that social workers appear to be a lower priority.

“I feel PPE is one of those things we will get when we don’t need it anymore. I think social workers just kind of accept it. We have this in-joke with colleagues that we will go into situations where police won’t go or when they do they have protective equipment and we have our magic ID badge.

“I work with midwives who have GPS location tracking ID badges for safety reasons for remote and home visiting. I don’t have anything like that.”

Working virtually with families

In common with social workers across the UK, Emily and Sian are using technology as best they can to continue working with service users remotely.

“We have access to WhatsApp, Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” says Emily. “We are using a range of different platforms to speak to people. In terms of direct work, we are still putting up our worksheets online and we can give parents or children documents so they can draw over it and write what they want to write.”

Sian adds: “I did a game with one lad who is nine - we played online and talked through text talk while we were playing.

“I had another one where we did some drawing over WhatsApp. We are still trying to do that work because it still needs doing but we are having to find more creative ways to do it.

“Some find it exciting and enjoy it. But for younger children it is a real struggle because they don’t understand it.”

Emily says she is picking up tips on ways of working from other colleagues.

“I was having a conversation with someone from CAFCASS the other day about how you can determine if a child is in the room on their own.

“She said what she does is get them to do a little game and stand up with the phone and spin round so she can have a look at the room. They don’t realise that is what I am doing. I have started using that because it is a great way for me to check they are on their own in the room.”

Using such technology, however, is dependent on families having access to computers and being online.

“I have a family who don’t have access to the internet,” says Sian. “How do you remote work with a family without access to the internet?

“Remote working is fine for the majority of the population but there is a small proportion, who tend to be our most disadvantaged anyway, that are then feeling like they are ignored again.”

Sian is also concerned over contact arrangements in the current climate.

“I had a child who is aged three who said to me ‘mummy lives in a computer now’. Because she is in care she sees her mum via contact and since all face-to-face contact has stopped we are offering virtual contact.

“I have two newborns – the next time their parents will see them is when lockdown ends.

“All contact centres are closed, so the only thing we can provide is video contact. For a mum to be for whatever good reason taken away from her baby and not to have that touch contact is really emotive and difficult.”

Emily says she is lucky in that all the families she works with are able to use technology. But she adds: “While it is great us being innovative in practice, it is a risk to those children we are trying to do an assessment for because we are not getting a true and realistic picture of what life is like for these families

“It is challenging because we can’t see the body language and what is really going on because we are so removed from it.”

Despite the limitations, Emily does believe the use of technology during coronavirus is likely to change social work in the future.

“An example is, we were doing more regular visiting for a particular child as they are not quite meeting the threshold for child protection just yet.

“It might be that we are able to do one physical visit but the rest we can do virtually. So it saves us going out to see them and going into the family home all the time. You are respecting their rights too but still keeping an eye on the child and having the discussions with the family and the child but are not necessarily there in person.”

Public perception

While the current crisis has seen the work of health professionals applauded, Sian feels frustrated that social workers aren’t afforded the same praise.

“We are dealing with this now and when it is long past crisis in the NHS we will still be dealing with it and it won’t be mentioned then because some of the things we have to do aren’t things the public want to hear about.

“We save lives in a very different way to the NHS. And in the process of doing that we also, unintentionally, cause havoc in other people’s lives.

“When we remove children we do it for a good reason but it breaks the parents we are removing the children from.

“Most of the time we are fighting tooth and nail to keep children with parents. But the media don’t want to hear about that which doesn’t help the profession in raising awareness of how much of the population we are helping.”

Support from employer

Despite the many challenges, both Sian and Emily feel they have been well supported by their employer.

“Their communication and decision-making has been incredible,” says Emily. “They’ve sorted out the equipment for people to work at home, delivering laptops, computers, chairs and made sure we are comfortable.

“Those at higher risk due to their own personal health have been taken off frontline work. Management have focused on keeping the workforce healthy and not putting anyone under unnecessary risk.”

Colleagues have also been a source of support during the crisis, says Sian: “We are meeting virtually via teams to keep in touch with each other. Tonight, for example, we have a virtual team pub quiz to try and lift spirits.”

Do you have experiences, thoughts or feelings of social work during the COVID-19 pandemic you would like to share with Professional Social Work magazine? Click here to find out how