Child protection social work in a pandemic: Turning towards the community?

May 12, 2020  |  By Brid Featherstone

“Disasters shake things loose. And the things that we regarded as fixed and unchangeable can suddenly be changed”
(Solnit, 2020)

Rebecca Solnit has become the ‘go to’ writer for many of us, at the moment, as we anxiously seize upon the messages of hope and possibility she has distilled from her decades long study of disasters. Martha Nussbaum too, with her work on how compassion is fostered when we confront our shared vulnerability to misfortune, offers a really helpful frame to make sense of the acts of care and courage we are seeing all around us, especially among health and social care workers.

But what about child protection social work? This is an area of work that is not always well understood by the public. Unlike the NHS, the majority of people are unlikely to have much contact with it. Its mandate can be very contested, oscillating between keeping families together, in a spirit of compassion and solidarity, and removing children from those considered to be failing or feckless. As such, it is an area of work that is so often dominated by fear and risk aversion.

So what is happening to this work in the midst of this pandemic?

Certainly, calls, such as those by the Children’s Commissioner, for social workers to get out there and ensure ‘vulnerable children’ attend school, would appear prompted by the risks they might be being exposed to behind closed doors; beyond the professional gaze. This feeds into a long-standing story that protecting children is something professionals do. They visit family homes to assess the risks from parents or carers and they liaise with other professionals to ensure there are no blind spots. Such practices are steeped in the state paradigm, as outlined by Lent and Studdert, with the emphasis on top-down approaches founded on professional expertise.

However, consultations with workers, and some of the reflective articles being written during lockdown, suggest that while there is a lot of anxiety about children’s safety, exciting possibilities for a re-thinking of families’ own capacities, and of the role of professionals with families and communities, are emerging

SW2020Covid-19 is an online journal set up to provide space to reflect on lessons being learned in the pandemic. An article from David Orr, a team leader in Scotland, reflects on the fact that the expected surge in calls for urgent assistance to his service has not materialised and notes: “it may just be that we have underestimated the coping abilities and resilience of those we support”. ‘

Social workers note that, for some families, the lockdown is bringing them together as they adjust to a slower pace of life and experience a respite from the usual pressures, especially for those whose children find school difficult. This recognition of services as sources of strain, as well as support, echoes findings from previous research. It highlights how, for families with children with multiple needs, interactions with a wide range of agencies can often be very stressful. Many struggle with fragmented services, multiple appointments and confusing service demands especially when, as so often happens, they receive little practical help such as with bus fares and child care.

An ethic of solidarity is to be found involving practices that are helpful and supportive such as delivering food parcels and phone calls to ease isolation. In actions like these, there is a re-thinking of the place of communities in supporting families.

As one social worker noted:

“In normal times we don’t seek to link families to communities around them, but rather make interventions personal and individualised… and then criticise families if we feel they’re becoming ‘dependent’ on us…. this crisis has highlighted how dependent we are on individualised home visits.”

For others, their longstanding commitment to developing community approaches is proving its worth in these times. As Becca Dove, another contributor to SW2020Covid-19 notes: “Our focus on community in Camden family early help is to try and make sure families have someone to watch over them, not when (or indeed because) professionals feel worried, but someone to be there in the good times and someone to turn to in the dark and difficult moments’

Many of the fault lines in the contemporary social settlement have been exposed by COVID-19 with child protection policies and practices proving no exception. Sharing stories of hope for a different future is vital – let us continue the dialogue.

Brid Featherstone is Professor of Social Work at the University of Hudderfield. She has co-authored Re-imaginig Child Protection: towards humane social work with families and Protecting Children: A Social Model.