It’s Tuesday afternoon on 5 January 2021, the day after the latest lockdown in England has been announced. I’m perched on one end of a mattress and Tyson*, who is 15 years old, is showing me the small phone on which he has tried to access his online classes. The screen is cracked and splintered.
When I left the office where my fellow child-protection social workers and I are based to visit Tyson, I hadn’t yet heard whether his school was open. In the most recent message I received from the school, I was told it was still trying to work out the logistics of setting up mass-testing and keeping everyone safe.
I’m on the mattress because there is nowhere else to sit. Tyson’s flat is too small for him, his mum and his baby sister, so they’ve had to turn the living room into an extra bedroom. Tyson has a social worker because he has been exploited; coerced by older men into handling crack cocaine, he is increasingly caught in the criminal justice system and was stabbed a few months ago. His neighbourhood is a source of constant threat.
For Tyson, it’s not just a cliché: school really was a crucial place of safety.
He falls into the government’s definition of a “vulnerable child”, like all the other children on my caseload – theoretically part of the cohort who should never have stopped attending school during lockdowns. But the reality for these children has often not reflected the rhetoric.
At the start of each period of closure, school safeguarding officers identified relevant children and contacted parents directly, but that inevitably takes time. Schools are experiencing staff absences, and shifting to a majority-online curriculum while also maintaining classes for some students is not easy. Although Tyson is technically able to attend classes most of the time, his school’s offer has been inconsistent, with significant gaps.
As for the technological provision promised, only a handful of the families I work with have a computer, and few have received a laptop through the Department for Education’s scheme. Most have smartphones, like Tyson, but with internet access that is erratic at best. I know of only a couple of pupils who have received the devices promised to them. Some were delivered directly to us and were quickly distributed, but they met only a proportion of demand.
[See also: Revealed: UK flew in thousands of school laptops from Shanghai in last-minute bid to plug shortages]
Tyson’s education – and the extra help usually provided to him by attending school in the form of counselling, activities and a hot meal each day – has been disrupted yet again. When all children returned to school last September, teachers told me so many had fallen behind that many were effectively starting subjects from scratch.
My role with children like Tyson becomes even more important when they are stuck at home. But the pandemic and the government’s response to it have added extraordinary challenges to the work we do, with serious consequences for our most vulnerable.
I know of children who have not seen their social worker in person since last March, their parents too frightened of catching the virus to let us into the house. We would normally try to see them in school, but barriers exist there too. Although school places were available, some parents were too afraid of infection to send their children to school during the first lockdown, and have made the same decision this time around. And even when they were open as normal, schools frequently sent whole classes home for periods of days or weeks in response to Covid-19 outbreaks, or introduced strict restrictions on visitors – sometimes requiring items of personal protective equipment that we simply do not have.
[See also: The lost children of lockdown]
As a result, we’ve had no choice but to maintain our contact in some cases by video calls alone. Early in the first lockdown, we were asked to make judgements about how often, if at all, children still needed to be seen in person, or whether these “virtual visits” would suffice.
It is inevitable that some of our assessments were wrong. I can never be certain about what is going on in a family’s home, and though technology has enabled some positive innovations, it is difficult to have a therapeutic conversation over video – never mind check for violent men, or bins for alcohol.
Nor am I able to make sure young people have a safe space to talk to me alone. No doubt some are really struggling, but without anyone to tell.
I’m constantly having to balance the risks associated with the virus against the need to interact with children at home.
After my visit to Tyson, I am standing on a doorstep, acknowledging to one father that, yes, the whole country has gone into a full lockdown again and, yes, I’m sorry, I do still have to visit. He does not want to let me into their house at the best of times, but my negotiation now involves questions about Covid-19 transmission. This is way above my expertise, and is stretching social workers further than ever before.
For a long time, I couldn’t even reassure reluctant families with a test result; we didn’t get access to regular testing until Christmas, even though we were working throughout 2020. There is no news yet on where social workers sit in the queue for vaccines.
My colleagues, in spite of all this, continue to be remarkably dedicated. We have a skeleton staff in the office each week to respond to emergencies and, when I return there after my visits, I hear them offering advice and reassurance to anxious parents and frustrated young people.
Many of our team-mates are shielding or off sick, so we are trying our best to cover everything. It’s not always possible, and without the scaffolding provided by children’s centres (which are mostly closed), health visitors (who are often only working remotely) and other support services, some families have reached crisis point.
Already this year, I’ve been asked to make dramatic decisions about the lives of children I’d never previously met.
For some young people the impact of the lockdowns has been especially acute. There are children in care who have not seen their parents in person for months, their contact limited to Microsoft Teams meetings. Others have not seen their siblings because they were separated during a period of lockdown and now live in different parts of the country. Our attempts to facilitate them spending time together are frequently scuppered by a lack of facilities and the suspension of dedicated contact services.
Worse, decisions about children’s lives – including those through which they are removed from their parents’ care – have been made in virtually held court hearings. There’s little justice in that.
Nor does the government seem to be thinking about the role of social workers when it closes other services to reduce the spread of infection. The risks don’t disappear; we simply bear an even greater burden. When schools close, we end up visiting some children at home more often. When courts close, we invite parents to our offices so they can access important documents or participate in conference calls. We’re constantly picking up the slack and it is little wonder that, just weeks into the new year, we’re already exhausted.
Perhaps most worrying to all of us, though, are the lives of the children who remain hidden. During the first lockdown referrals to children’s social care fell by up to 30 per cent in England: a reflection of the part schools play in making sure pupils get extra support when needed. The situation is surely only going to get worse, especially if, as has been suggested, schools are closed until the summer.
As for Tyson, later in the week his school told me he could attend but would need to have a negative test result to do so. He did return to school eventually, after a few days at home. But these days add up, particularly for young people already disadvantaged.
It is hard not to feel that the welfare of vulnerable children, and the work we do to support them, has been ignored. Of course we need strict measures to reduce the spread of infection, but at what cost to our children? I can’t help but feel nervous.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity. The author is a child-protection social worker in England and writes under a pseudonym.