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COVID-19 means doing more social work via technology - mitigating risks is key

Advice on using tech from a council that has tested different platforms

Person typing on a smartphone
East Sussex children's services had been piloting use of some apps before the pandemic

Professional Social Work magazine - 14 April 2020

The coronavirus outbreak means social workers are turning to technology for more of their work to try and minimise infection risks for everyone.

Long before the pandemic, social workers at East Sussex Council had been piloting the use of different online tools in some services. PSW magazine asked Nicola McGeown, the council’s principal social worker for children and families, to share her advice on using tech in your social work practice.

What technology are your teams using?

Our throughcare team, which works with young people aged 14-24, has been using WhatsApp for a while as a means of some very vulnerable young people being able to get in touch with their social workers. Now with the COVID-19 situation there’s a much wider need. Our social workers cannot visit families unless it’s absolutely critical. So there’s an imperative for us to have a good video call option.

Our first preference is Skype, and we’ve produced very clear, step-by-step guidance for children and families on how to set that up. If that’s not possible, then we’ll recommend Facetime if they have an iPhone. If not, we’ll recommend WhatsApp and we find most families have that on their phones.

We’re currently rolling out WhatsApp in our social work teams. We’re making sure they have the right support and the right guidance. It’s not a case of us just dropping the app into everyone’s phones and saying ‘on you go’ because there are a lot of risks and practice issues to consider.

What issues have you found when using tech?

You have to understand what the different apps are doing. For example, initially we looked into the possibility of using Facebook Messenger in the throughcare team. It had the advantage of being website-based so if young people had lost their phone they could go to a library or cyber cafe and make contact. But we found out in the background it went through your phone contacts and suggested connections. So we decided on WhatsApp, which is encrypted and much tighter.

There are still risks though. A big one is location sharing – you have to make sure that setting is switched off. You have to make sure the WhatsApp account is closed properly if someone is leaving the organisation. Our approach is to have a really, really robust risk assessment, be clear about what we’re doing to mitigate risks, and make sure we’re offering good support and guidance for staff.

What are some of your do’s and don’ts with WhatsApp?

Firstly, make sure all your settings are correct. Regularly check that, especially after automatic updates. Make sure location sharing is turned off.

Only use your work WhatsApp account to communicate with children and families. Be clear you’ll only be monitoring it during normal working hours. Be mindful of the content of your messages. Remember anyone with your work phone number can send you a message on WhatsApp. Remember if someone sends you a message out of the blue they may not be who they claim to be.

Don’t share personal data about yourself or your location. Don’t send any data from your work device to your personal device. Report any data breaches.

Is there advice for using video calls for virtual visits?

Yes, absolutely. For example, if you’re doing a statutory visit and you’d normally see the child alone try and do that on the virtual visit too. Be aware of confidentiality issues in your own environment and with the family who you are video calling. Find out who is in the home, who is in the room, who can hear or see the call. Try and make sure the call is as confidential as possible.

If you have concerns over the conditions of the home ask if you can be given a virtual tour. Don’t lose sight of why you’re involved - virtual visits still have to have a purpose. Be aware of what the child can see or hear in your environment. Get rid of unnecessary clutter from the space behind you and minimise distracting noises.

Young children will have shorter attention spans so consider having shorter but more regular video calls. Think about doing an activity together such as drawing together. You might be able to use effects, filters and backgrounds to help with that kind of thing.

What would you say to other social work employers looking at rolling out more technology?

Think it through. The coronavirus situation has brought a lot of pressure to use these tools instantly. But you still need to start from a place where you’re very clear about the risks, what you’re doing to mitigate those, the practice principles you will use and the guidance you’ll have to help people to stay as safe as possible online. If you don’t do that right from the start and things start to go wrong, it is very difficult to roll things back. You need to keep on top of it and build in lots of support.

For more on using online tools in social work, see BASW and SCIE's Digital capabilities for social workers resources.

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This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.