Child protection practice on the front line
By Jane Heap, Advanced Practitioner at Doncaster Children’s Services Trust
As we approach one year of practising social work in a pandemic, I feel compelled to document my experience. My intention is not to speak for everyone but to capture my own reflections of what has been a unique and challenging period of my career.
As a child protection social worker, I certainly consider myself to be on the front line. I can easily recall the sense of panic, uncertainty and fear I experienced in the early days of the pandemic, not only for myself but my colleagues, my family and of course the children I support.
As a child protection social worker, you learn to live with the constant anxiety of missing something, of making a bad decision, or an unexpected event that could lead to you being front-page fodder for the press. I believe that for myself and many of my colleagues, the realisation came very quickly that the task of keeping children safe was about to become considerably harder in the face of the unknown.
The risk of infection from Coronavirus presented both a legitimate fear and a perfect barrier. Initially there was much uncertainty about how we would be expected to perform our statutory duties and keep ourselves safe at the same time. That is not a criticism of our own leadership team, who could never have anticipated such an event. But more so that we were all now in the face of a worldwide pandemic, an experience unknown to most in this lifetime.
Best practice vs day-to-day reality
When direction did arrive, the reality of adhering to safety guidelines soon presented itself. In social work, despite best efforts, there is often a contrast between best practice and the day-to-day reality. Never more so when it comes to social distancing. I recall one child climbing over the wall of his front garden to give me a hug, how could I refuse?
I’ve found it incredibly challenging to engage meaningfully with scared or anxious children and parents with a cloth barrier on my face, at a distance or at times through a screen. An unnatural new norm that was presented to us that we quickly had to adapt to so we can continue to support those who need us the most. Day to day life, both at home and at work very quickly became a parallel universe. I will never forget the frantic calls coming in to the office from parents who could not locate baby formula and nappies and who did not have the means to search borough wide for much needed items. It’s hard to imagine a more primal fear than being unable to feed your baby. Little did I know that this would soon be a genuine anxiety of my own? I’m sure many of you shared the demoralising experience of staring at empty shelves in the supermarket at the end of a work day or of dropping bags of shopping at the doorstep of your loved ones, disappointed that you couldn’t find everything on their list.
From alien to familiar
Sadly, so much of what appeared so alien then is now so familiar – the queues, the masks, the arrows on the floor. I imagine most social work colleagues have often felt that we are the forgotten emergency service, a feeling that was only heightened during the pandemic. But I have a new appreciation for Sainsbury’s, whom to my knowledge became the first to recognise social care as key workers.
I don’t expect recognition for what I do, but I’ve no doubt that social workers were not on the minds of the majority who clapped on their doorsteps every week. I can’t help feeling a sense of disappointment and frustration at that.
Once again, we find ourselves largely working from home. Fortunately, many of us were lucky to already have the technology in place to allow us to quickly adapt to working remotely. To the person who gave the go ahead for our little friends, the Dell Latitude 5290, I salute you! Personally, whilst I miss human interaction, I don’t miss travelling to and from meetings - those precious minutes wasted driving from one building to another for a strategy meeting or panel meeting. I’m hopeful that these practices will be utilised more in the future when life returns to normal. If only Google teams could introduce filters to improve my appearance then I will be fully on board!
A range of feelings
However, there are some things that technology can’t replace or replicate. So many times in my career, I have leaned on my colleagues for support and guidance. A smile or glance of support when making a challenging phone call, a joke, a hug, or a chat over a cup of tea that prevents the tears from falling after a difficult visit or a challenging day in court. The anger, the pride, the fear, the frustration, the pride, the sadness, the anxiety, the confusion, the waves of feeling overwhelmed…my colleagues have supported me through it all. I strongly believe that child protection practice is not something that can be done in isolation or in the confines of your home.
Before Covid-19, I had always tried to keep my work and my home life separate. Not easy given the late hours and the frequent need to work evenings and weekends. But as the pandemic went on, it often felt that there was no escape. The day-to-day reality of working in child protection is not pretty. Domestic abuse, sexual abuse, adults hurting children, people in crisis – these are the harsh realities of the work we do. We read about it, we write about it and we talk about it – with each other, and with the abusers and victims themselves. Sometimes they are angry, sometimes they are sad. I would never in a million years choose to bring this in to my own home, my safe place. I long to be able to leave these things behind me at the end my work day.
Demand for our service has risen and I’m sure will continue to do so as the effects of the pandemic continue to be felt. There is no doubt that there are challenging times ahead. However, as March approaches, there are positive signs that offer hope. Hand sanitiser and PPE is abundant, we have access to regular testing, and many of my colleagues have received their vaccine. I am so proud of my fellow social workers and social work assistants and our organisation as a whole for what we have done and continue to do on a daily basis. Change is always difficult, but managing this level of uncertainty in our home and work life could never have been predicted. Yet, we have remained committed to supporting and protecting the children of Doncaster, sometimes even with a smile. And I for one will never take working from an office for granted again, I shall skip happily to my desk, and never complain about hot-desking again.