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Article Article September 28th, 2020
Education • Health • Justice • Legitimacy

Note for the House of Lords’ Public Services Committee: Insights from children’s social work practitioners during COVID-19

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On 16 Sep 2020, @CPI_foundation submitted insights from children's social care practitioners during #COVID19 as evidence to @LordsPublicSCom

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.@Rose_Katie @ryanwise18 & Michaela Berry began 'Small Changes' programme, supporting LAs to implement the Blueprint for Childrens Soc Care

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Amid COVID, Soc workers have experimented w/ engaging families, but experienced increased bureaucracy. Read more in our note @LordsPubicSCom

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The Centre for Public Impact submitted this as evidence before the House of Lords Public Service Committee on 16 September 2020.

The Centre for Public Impact (CPI) has worked with hundreds of frontline practitioners over the last 18 months to understand how the children's social care system could adapt to better prioritise relationships with children and families and better enable social workers. Throughout COVID-19, as part of CPI's broader listening work, we have heard the views of practitioners across the country about how children's social care has adapted throughout the crisis. They have shared their personal experiences of what has been working, and therefore should be continued as we look to recovery, and what still needs to change to ensure children and families are best supported.

Thank you to all those practitioners who spoke to us - the social workers, the team managers, the consultant social workers, the practice supervisors, and so many others - especially during this impossible time.

We hope we have reflected, as best we can, some of your experiences and perspectives. But this is at best reflections. We encourage the Public Services Committee, and all those considering what should be learnt from the crisis of children's social care and other services, to go and speak to the hundreds of practitioners keen to make their voices heard.

Below captures the insights from our conversations with practitioners; in raw note form, quoting where possible, in an effort to be truest to the voices of those who contributed. At the end of this note, we have also captured the innovations and changes, big and small, that practitioners have told us have helped them support families at this time, and those changes to the system that still need to happen so relationships can be prioritised.

Insights from practitioners during COVID-19

During this time, social workers have been able to experiment with different ways of engaging with families and dedicate more time to direct work, by using digital technologies and being able to be creative:

  • Practitioners have been able to be creative: “many feel they have more options in how they can see and keep in touch with families”
  • “Child protection conferences can involve more people and agencies”
  • Technology has made things more convenient for some families and where relationships are good, it has been very freeing. “Some Child In Need families have liked to be checked in with more regularly… there was a sense someone was making sure they are ok”
  • “Distributing laptops have changed things for some families, in terms of the services they can access and the support they can get”
  • “Virtual visits should be considered visits”; “the flexibility to give the support needed is good”
  • Digital technologies have led to reduced travel time between visits and given many more options for engagement method
  • BUT many practitioners said it is really hard to get a picture of the home and virtual visits often increase anxiety. “The feeling you get cant be replicated remotely”. “Sometimes you need to see what is going on to understand; without doing so it's so hard to know”.

Pre-existing relationships between social workers and children and families have been vital to good social work during this time:

  • Digital technologies have worked well when the relationship between social workers and children and families is strong. Those relationships have enabled social workers to trust the picture they are getting and work with the family effectively during this time. 
  • Where a social worker did not have relationships or trust, some families have used the pandemic as a way to get out seeing their social worker
  • “Masks have made it harder to build relationships and trust”
  • But according to many managers, “social workers have been amazingly resilient and creative during this time”. They have ensured that they are offering children and families the best support possible, “even putting themselves at risk to do so when there is not the right PPE”.
  • And many social workers have been “blown away by the resourcefulness of families” and have been able to work with them in new ways: directing them to community services and mutual aid groups etc.

There has also been more poverty informed practice: “more social workers are doing the basics for families and giving them the support they actually need”

  • Social workers have been able to give food not just food vouchers: “giving actual food rather than vouchers has been so important to many families and should stay”
  • Social workers have been able to get nappies and milk to families and things they did not have access to before. “Children have enjoyed the practical things they can get”.
  • Doing these have enabled social workers to give more bespoke support in many cases: “we have at least learnt from this what a lot of families actually need”

For many though, there has been increased bureaucracy and process: “there has been an increase in demands, taking away time from working with families”

  • Social workers have been expected to adapt as well as deal with increased demands for information from management and Department for Education, often being asked for to check up on them rather than help them do their jobs better
  • Social workers have been asked to report on so many things they weren't asked to before, e.g. updates on risk assessment, usual visits and further covid contacts, urgent data etc: “We now have thousands of spreadsheets… even more than before”
  • The anxiety from management within the local authority has led to more of a command and control approach in many contexts, rather than an enablement mindset that would help social workers feel trusted and supported
  • Excessive bureaucracy and process was a big issue before COVID, taking away social workers time from direct work and not enabling the prioritisation of relationships between them and families. This has increased in many cases during COVID and there is a fear that “when we turn to recovery, we will just try and go back to what we know wasn't working before”. 

There has been an increase in demands, taking away time from working with families.

Many social workers feel really underappreciated during this hard time:

  • “Teams have been fantastic: social workers have been putting themselves at personal risk to support, often without PPE”
  • “Social workers are having to deal with trauma in their home and take very difficult calls with families, with no space to debrief with colleagues”.
  • “They have had a huge upheaval to their work too like everyone but they are expected just to get on with things”
  • Many feel their work during this time has gone unrecognised: “I swear government guidance has not been thanking social workers in the same way as other services”

Many feel that there is not enough funding or resources to deal with the huge increase in referrals:

  • “Referrals in some weeks have doubled”. “It seems like it's been the highest ever since schools have restarted”. “Assessment teams are overwhelmed - but are also being told that budgets are being cut”
  • Many voiced a need to invest in social care and other partners at this moment in time: “LAs need support, not budget cuts.”
  • Recruitment is also an issue for many local authorities: “we just don't have enough staff to deal with the amount of referrals”

Social workers do not work in a vacuum: “partners' help is vital to making those invisible children visible”

  • There have been some real positive developments in multi agency working and embedding social work in the fabric of the community:

    • “Child protection is seen more now as a public duty”. 
    • “Mutual aid groups, churches and mosques during lockdown were key when professional services shut down”. 
    • “Schools also did step up during lock down”. This unleashed greater collaboration. “Many schools now understand that they have a role in supporting and protecting the child”.
    • Many talked about schools now having more of an intelligent picture of risk

  • But there is still a feeling that social services have had to pick up slack where other services are not:

    • “The school nurses and other partners social workers rely on are not seeing children.” “Midwives are sometimes not doing medical assessments. It is those people who notice things.” 
    • “Working with schools has become more difficult with their no outside visitor rule: need to be able to work together”
    • “Guidance in schools about social distancing and PPE is unhelpful.” It is often impossible to do and is deterring partner agencies from taking responsibility, leaving everything to social workers.
    • “Services like drug and alcohol agencies have been furloughed, CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) waiting list is now 11 months long and initial assessments for alcohol misuses is 2 months wait.” This makes it hard for social workers to work with necessary agencies to give the family the support they need

We need to move away from social workers being miracle workers: they can't be expected to see everything and have all the risk land with them.

  • “There is a need for guidance to ensure partner agencies are doing their job and for other services to step up and take joint responsibility with social workers to support vulnerable families”
  • “We need to move away from social workers being miracle workers: they can't be expected to see everything and have all the risk land with them.” 
  • “The system is creaking but everyone is asking what can social services do about it?”

There is also a need for a more dynamic way to assess risk:

  • RAG ratings were done to assess the impact of COVID on families and existing vulnerabilities: creating an additional snapshot of risk. Sometimes this made practitioners think afresh but sometimes it just confused the picture. “RAG rating brought comfort to managers but efficacy of desk based risk assessment in social work is questionable”.
  • Many practitioners called for the need for more dynamic, iterative way of assessing risk that is grounded in social workers reality and the lived experience of the child

Lastly, many practitioners have recognised there is a huge disparity between experiences in local authorities:

  • There seems to be a huge disparity amongst boroughs, and guidance seems patchy. “There needs to be more guidance about what is expected from social workers across local authorities right now”
  • There is also a big difference to the way social workers have experienced leadership in their local authority. Many said they had very supportive leadership - “we had daily communication from our DCS [Director of Children's Services] in the beginning which was great”. Many also said they had clear guidance from leadership, on practical matters but also emotional support. But some said their leaders have increased the command and control approach, rather than nurturing trust and giving them the support they need at this time. “I feel less trusted now than I did before COVID”.

LOOKING AHEAD: Changes that have made an impact and those that still could for children and families, and their social workers

There are many changes that have made a big difference to children and families, that need to be continued

  • “Not evicting people and the Furlough scheme has offered some sense of stability”
  • Maintaining flexibility of visits: “we need to maintain this in the legislation”. This seems to have helped social workers be more creative and efficient with their time
  • Focusing on getting the basics right: “parking passes have really helped, and being able to get families food not vouchers”. “Some of these small things would be missed if policy makers don't speak to social workers actually working with children and families”
  • Continue to foster multi agency working and working with schools as social services rely on other partners and agencies to help them provide the support and protection vulnerable children need
  • Continue making it very clear that it is the public's responsibility to support vulnerable children: “Child protection is now seen more as a public duty… People should be helped more to understand how to refer to social services, as communities tend to know those children at risk”

But there are many things that still need to change and stubborn challenges that still need to be addressed:

  • Build on social workers' energy and creativity, rather than trying to control them through processes: “we need to speak to social workers about all the changes they have made during this time to understand what has worked well for them and what they need in order to do their jobs well.” “We need to understand what processes actually help social workers do their jobs and which are just there to frankly make managers happy.”
  • Put social workers' voices continually at the heart of any change: “we need to get social workers to work with the government… we need to put them in the civil service and it be their voices we listen to.” “Social workers have so many ideas of how to change things but no one asks them and if they do they only ask once”. “Can we make sure we don't just talk to the tri-borough or London? We need to talk to social workers in those LAs who are failing and understand what they need from the government to feel supported.” 
  • Empower social workers to continually define and deliver what support families need: e.g. food packages or help with housing solutions, rather than relying on rigid standardised assessments and out of the box solutions: “from this, we have learnt what a lot of families actually need. Sometimes it's just food or help with housing… we couldn't give that before”. “I don't think that we should categorise risk from a desk”
  • Embed social care into the fabric of the community support: “we need schools and partner agencies to continue the close work they have been doing with social workers during this time to ensure that they feel jointly responsible for the child”. 
  • There needs to be an acknowledgement from government that we are not yet in the recovery stage: “many on the front line still feel like they are fighting fires and are not thinking about recovery yet”
  • Finally, there was a call from many of the practitioners we have spoken to to ensure we learn from this crisis, and not attempt to just go back to the system we had before: “we need to resist the temptation to go back to the ways things were.” “The old system wasn't working either. I am worried we will just try and forget this ever happened”.

About the authors, who gave evidence to the committee on 16th September 2020

Authors and witnesses:

  • Katie Rose, Senior Manager at Centre for Public Impact (CPI), a not for profit organisation
  • Michaela Berry, Practice Supervisor at an East Midlands Local Authority
  • Ryan Wise, Practice Tutor at Frontline

Our work to date

Before COVID-19 crisis, CPI worked with hundreds of practitioners to design what a different way of delivering social care could look like, in a way that prioritised time and relationships with children and families. We co-produced a blueprint with practitioners and leaders, which was launched in November 2019. After the launch, many practitioners at all levels of the system have come forward wanting to make the vision it presents a reality in their local context. 

But then COVID-19 hit. And the children's social care system changed overnight. Practitioners were still getting in touch however asking how they could continue to make this vision a reality, with so many seeing so many changes that would make a huge difference to children and families. So we - as a team of CPI staff members and practitioners - built the Small Changes programme. Small changes is an inspiration programme for practitioners which helps inspire them to make the small changes they see are needed for children and families, and then supports them in implementing and living these in their local authority.

Small changes was born out of the belief that so many ideas for how to make things better in children's social care already exist and practitioners often just need the space, time, confidence and colleagues to be listened to and supported in making the small changes that can have a big impact.

We [Katie, Ryan and Micheala] have piloted this programme with 30 Practice Supervisors from across 15 Local Authorities and many are now making so many small changes. Small changes was born out of the belief that so many ideas for how to make things better in children's social care already exist and practitioners often just need the space, time, confidence and colleagues to be listened to and supported in making the small changes that can have a big impact. 

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, CPI have also held many listening sessions with practitioners to understand their experience, and what is working for them and what is not to continue to understand what should shape the future of the system. All our work to date feeds into this note. 

The importance of listening to shape the future: CPI's broader listening agenda

As well as conducting listening sessions with children's social work practitioners, CPI, in partnership with the charity Changing Lives, have been carrying out experiments in how to listen to seldom heard, vulnerable people in the North of England in order to understand how they felt about being heard and engaged with throughout the pandemic so far and would like to be heard and participate in the future.The insights are fascinating and can inform communications and engagement with target groups and seldom heard communities on corona safety messages, will be useful in planning coordinated support, vaccine engagement strategies as well as planning for future more inclusive participation in local, regional and national conversations. 

CPI UK Director Nadine Smith and Laura Seebohm, an Executive Director of Changing Lives, would be pleased to give you an early look at the insights that are being published in the first week of October and discuss the next stage of listening, which will involve seldom heard groups of women.

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