Sarah*, a social worker, was on duty when she had to help a colleague take two children into police protection because they were at risk of human trafficking and sexual abuse. The two had been put into foster care earlier that day but had since “done a runner”.
“We had to go to the place they had been removed from to see if they were there,” she explains. To protect themselves against the coronavirus, the social workers had to wear aprons, masks and gloves as they went in to look for the runaways.
The two children they were trying to find were not at their home, but the social workers did find their younger brothers and sisters. “We must have looked like aliens. It was just horrible,” Sarah says.
Social workers are battling to support families and protect children in what the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has described as a “totally unprecedented” situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent survey of over 2,000 social workers revealed a mixed picture, according to BASW. While many social workers report that they feel well-supported by councils, the survey showed that others feel exposed to high levels of risk.
One social worker responding to the poll said: “We are being asked to buy washing up bowls to keep in our cars and wash our hands in between visits.” Another added: “No hand sanitiser, no protective clothing, no procedures or guidance – we are told it’s business as usual.”
A third echoed this sentiment: “We have seen no direction or guidance so far, other than to wash our hands.” They added that “no decisions” had been made about how they should prevent the spread of the virus as they make home visits and meet people, despite growing concerns. “We are panicking due to the lack of national guidance.”
Calls to the NSPCC have increased by a fifth since the start of lockdown measures, according to figures released by the child protection charity. It received 2,216 calls in the first four weeks of restrictions, compared to 1,867 the previous four weeks. The charity said that lockdown measures were “intensifying abuse and increasing the impact it has on children who can’t escape it.”
“Most of the services have packed up, so it’s hard to access mental health support, counselling, parenting skills work,” notes David*, a child protection social worker from the Midlands. This is compounded, he says, by the courts, which are only hearing urgent applications. According to David, this means the system stagnates and children who need to leave their homes are having to stay there. The rise in domestic violence, a stretched police force and lack of spaces in refuges has only added to the pressure on services. David is very concerned about the longer-term impact on social care. “Cash-strapped councils who run social care are spending money very quickly with no support announced, and they will face massive funding gaps when all this is over,” he says.
A Department for Education spokesperson said their priority is “keeping vulnerable children safe” and that the government are giving councils “more than £3.2bn of additional funding to support services, including children’s social care.” The spokesperson added that vulnerable children, alongside the children of critical workers, are allowed to continue to attend schools and nurseries. Responding to the criticism of a lack of clear guidance, they said, “We have worked with the sector to publish guidance for social workers, and thank them for their continued efforts in these unprecedented circumstances.”
Sarah says her council in southern England has taken on agency social workers to keep up with the rise in casework during the crisis, which had already been very high pre-pandemic. It has also had to deal with the temporary closure of many of the support services they would refer people on to help resolve or repair issues in families. Among social workers “the morale is just really low”, says Sarah, although she feels a move to online multi-agency meetings has made things smoother.
Andy Gill, chair of the BASW, says the situation is “totally unprecedented”. He feels the guidance to social workers from the Department for Education fails to deal with some of the realities front-line staff are facing. “If you’re visiting a lone parent family living in a small flat you cannot social distance. That’s just not possible”, he explains. Instead, some social workers are having to make imaginative use of online tools like Zoom or WhatsApp, meet families in private gardens, or even in public parks. “Obviously there has to be a level of confidentiality around that but it maintains contact with the family,” he adds.
Gill is also concerned about the impact on residential children’s homes and foster carers. He continues: “If you have a number of staff down in a residential unit clearly you are not going to be able to offer the care and support, and that is happening. We know that is happening”. What this means, he says, is that they are then having to find alternative placements, which may be much further away from home. “You are trying to keep a level of security and stability for children in unstable times.”
*Names have been changed.