Running a local authority therapeutic social work team during COVID-19
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19 May 2020
By Katie Wrench, social worker and art psychotherapist
Our service in Leeds works primarily with children looked after and care experienced young adults and has been established in the city since 1996. We have a stable, experienced staff team: a psychologist, an occupational therapist, and therapeutic social workers with additional therapeutic training in abundance. We are in many ways in a privileged position when it comes to adapting to crisis. We understand on a theoretical level what happens to our brains and to our bodies when we are under acute stress or experience traumatic events. We work with up to 300 children, their families and caregiving systems impacted by developmental trauma every day of our working lives. But we are usually not doing so whilst our own central nervous systems are at times managing overwhelming stress. COVID 19 has been our biggest challenge to date.
As managers our priority, as lockdown loomed was, in the words of the flight attendant, ‘to put your own mask on first.’ We knew that if we were going to be able to usefully support children and their families through this difficult time, we needed time to regulate ourselves first. We needed space to honour and process our own feelings about the changing landscape; to understand and then negotiate what this meant for us as individuals and for our own lives and families before we could do that in our work.
And so, at a time when many were leaping into action, we pressed pause. We gave our team and ourselves time to adjust to the changing situation. We created more spaces for connection from afar, and moreover gave explicit permission for frequent check ins and breaks. We made sure everyone had access to the resources they needed to comfortably work from their homes – which meant opening our office a few times so people could collect books, chairs, keyboards, cables, and chargers. And we had time to negotiate the challenges of using technology for communication and remote working, which is a whole other blog.
We made a big decision not to accept new referrals or to allocate any new screenings of therapeutic need for four weeks, to allow us time to formulate how on earth we would be offering a service which is so heavily reliant on relationships without meeting face to face. This also gave us capacity to contact every family we were working with in the first week of lockdown to offer reassurance we were still here, but also to start to think together and plan for whether we would continue to ‘meet’ virtually and how, or to wait to resume face to face support post lockdown. These plans have been kept under weekly review using a dynamic, whole team spreadsheet which records those agreements and highlights any family with additional vulnerabilities or need.
What has emerged over time is that for some families the slower pace of life, not having to negotiate after school clubs and other commitments, or to manage the challenges of school attendance has had a positive impact on relationships, emotional wellbeing and mental health. They have needed our support much less. For others, being in such close confinement with family without breaks or conversely experiencing extreme isolation (as has been the case for some care experienced young people) has at times felt unbearable. Some have needed our support much more. We have worked hard to normalise rather than pathologize this response – indeed at times many of us are experiencing the same feelings of despair, powerlessness, and anxiety.
So, what has been ‘therapeutic’ about our work during COVID 19? I cannot say it’s been business as usual, as much of our work is impossible to do on the phone or through a video link and for most it is not the time for trauma processing. We have a sense that the most meaningful thing we can offer at this unprecedented time of pain and uncertainty is a holding, stabilising space: a space where feelings can be validated within a relationship built on trust, consistency and predictability. And the promise that we will be there on the other side if we are still needed.
Katie Wrench is a part time Team Manager at the Therapeutic Social Work Team in Leeds and also provides independent consultation and training to social care practitioners, adoptive parents and foster carers around life story work and other areas of social work and fostering/adoption practice across the UK. Katie has written three accessible books full of tried and tested creative activities for professionals, parents and foster carers who may have little time and experience of direct work and limited resources. Life Story Work with Children who are Fostered or Adopted: Creative Ideas and Activities, (Wrench & Naylor 2013), Helping Vulnerable Children and Adolescents to Stay Safe. Creative Ideas and Activities for Building Protective Behaviours (2016) and Creative Ideas for Assessing Vulnerable Children and Families (2018).