It’s a Wednesday evening in February 2021. We’re in ‘Lockdown 3’ and the directors are carrying out the weekly review of COVID-19 practice directions. Across our children and family services in Surrey, if a team is really struggling with low staffing due to illness or self-isolation we permit them to undertake some visits to children or families virtually, on a risk assessed basis. At this review we withdraw the one practice direction that has been in effect for a single team over the past four weeks and confirm that all our services are once again operating on a COVID-safe, business-as-usual basis.
This tightly defined, child- and family-centred flexing of our usual practice reflects one of the biggest changes in the way our services have responded to the realities of living and working with COVID-19. The first lockdown was sprung on the whole country almost without warning. It took a further two weeks before the Department for Education issued specific guidance for children’s social care. In the intervening fortnight local authorities everywhere were working with their anxious staff, and anxious families, to balance the risks to everyone of a novel infectious disease. That first lockdown saw a significant reduction in face to face contact between practitioners and children, and between partner organisations while we learned to assess those risks. We now adjust on a team by team basis, but in those early weeks the changes were more sweeping and general.
Another feature of the first lockdown was no presumption in the guidance that children in care should have family time with their birth families, or with brothers and sisters in the care system. Contrast that position with clear guidance that children of separated parents could move between both households. Even without the family courts pushing us, we would always want to support children to stay connected with their families, but some carers – understandably concerned about risks to their own health – were reluctant to support face to face contact. It’s a welcome feature of this lockdown that the guidance now fully supports our practice on this point.
During those early weeks we learned that while there is no substitute for meeting people face to face and building relationships in person, a lot of things can be done well virtually. Many multi-agency meetings saw participation increase when colleagues didn’t have to travel to attend. Getting everyone important in a child’s life around a virtual table can be more helpful than getting a few people round a real one.
We found that our young people are experts in connecting at a distance as for some there’s a comfort in not making eye contact. The well-established practice of having the deepest conversations side-by-side on a car journey can be somewhat replaced with a WhatsApp chat; and we have seen that regular, more frequent calls between a social worker and a young person can forge a stronger bond than a less frequent, face to face visit.
Despite some benefits to these new ways of working, it is still essential to see children and young people, and the situations in which they are living. This is especially so when children’s access to school is limited and few agencies have ‘eyes on’ children in the usual way. During the pandemic, Surrey has seen a 36% increase in contacts, demonstrating a real community concern about children’s wellbeing. These have led to a 14% increase in referrals. There’s greater complexity and risk in those referrals, and consequently 19% more children have a child protection plan. More than 100 children entered care in just three short months in summer 2020.
This increase in workload for our teams means our support for workforce resilience has never been more important. The council has a strong corporate wellbeing offer which is regularly shared with staff, including advice and resources to sustain both physical and mental wellbeing, a resilience assessment and toolkit, and access to the Employee Assistance Programme.
There are targeted materials, such as practical guidance to managers on supporting work-life balance for those with caring responsibilities, or the ‘Man Club’ – an informal safe space to discuss men’s health and wellbeing issues. There has also been a focus on recognising the increased risk COVID presents for BAME colleagues, especially those engaged in direct work. We test the impact of these initiatives through a regular ‘Pulse’ survey.
In children and family services, probably the best boosts to wellbeing have been the Social Care Awards for our staff and the Recognising You Awards for our brilliant young people in the run up to Christmas. Celebrating all that we achieved together in the first two lockdowns will help to carry us through the third.
Rachael Wardell is executive director of children, families and lifelong learning at Surrey CC