Children's services: What crises have taught us

Featured article - 11 May 2020
By James Thomas, Chief Executive Officer, Doncaster Children's Services Trust

James Thomas, Chief Executive Officer, Doncaster Children's Services Trus

In the social work world dealing with the new and emerging challenges facing families is nothing new. However much we plan and mitigate, there are still events that happen at no or short notice that we respond to. The Doncaster floods at the end of 2019 are a perfect example of that; when the Trust and partners had to react quickly to ensure our families, children and young people who were potential at risk of flooding were safe. We had Trust colleagues going out to help get our care leavers out of their homes before they were flooded. It tested as an organisation; our response, our resolve and it showed the strengths of our partnership in Doncaster, in terms of immediate and long-term response.

Floods are one thing. They can cause huge devastation but they are infrequent in most areas, occur with little notice, and usually isolated to an area; unlike COVID-19 which has affected each and every person and organisation and is something I’m sure even the most detailed of Business Continuity Plans did not completely prepare us for. The common strength throughout the floods and COVID-19 has been our staff; I’m sure others will feel the same about their colleagues. I have watched in admiration at their willingness to not only to adapt, but to adapt quickly. Most recently, we moved almost overnight from working in offices to almost 700 of us l working agile from home. We quickly had to revise our working practices in order to maintain physical distancing, and prioritising visits and contacts.

Adapting to this new way of working has been testing, but the willingness of our workforce has never ceased to amaze. As ever, their priority throughout has been keeping our children, young people and families safe.

Explaining social distancing to a child

In the weeks leading up to lockdown we had already started to implement plans to make sure visits could be completed and families knew they weren’t on their own. Wherever possible our workers are still visiting in person whilst adhering to social distancing; we’ve moved from visits in homes to chats in families’ gardens and walks around the block. It has been tough for everyone. Explaining social distancing to a young child isn’t that easy especially if they are used to playing games with their workers and have cuddles from them.

We are seeing families with the frequency that we were hoping for, in some case with our new ways of operating we are seeing them more. This is especially important as for some of our families this may be the only professional they are seeing right now.

Creativity has been key. For example our Parenting and Family Support Teams have developed child friendly ways to check home conditions such as scavenger hunts around the home have been introduced, and fun and engaging methods to acknowledge PPE kits have been carried out, such as making it a game for the child, to educate as well as eliminate potential worries.

Letter writing

In our Early Help service workers are writing letters to children about themselves, and then asking the young person to write one back. Modelled around Signs of Safety it is helping the young person to understand what worries the child. These are just a couple of the many ways our staff our balancing concerns and using their professional judgement to ensure everyone’s safety.

Technology has been key. Just before lockdown we were testing out in the office how to use a new thing called Microsoft Teams. Now the system is a part of our everyday working from team meetings within the organisation, to meeting with partners, as well as holding family conferences.

We’ve never stopped learning. Our weekly online learning lunches are providing colleagues with an opportunity for reflective downtime together and share learning on creative ways of working and to gain reassurance in these unusual of times; and gain mutual support. The technology is also being used to help us create virtual coffee breaks for teams to help keep them feel connected as a team. It’s not the same as being the same room, but it is working. There is still uncertainty as to when this lockdown period will end. However, from what we’ve learnt over the last 9 weeks we certainly be creating our new normal as we prepare for recovery. Working with staff we are taking a three horizons approach, reflecting on how we blend together the best bits of former practice we need to hold onto, what we’re doing now that we want to maintain; and how we can shape practice in future knowing what we know about how we’ve adapted.

Embracing change and being innovative isn’t new to social work, it is what we all do every day and that’s certainly what this period of lockdown has reminded us.

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