As I sit to write this, I am thinking about how Covid-19 has impacted on my work as a social work lecturer. I miss not seeing my students face-to-face. I am sad that I did not get to hug my final year students and give them a proper send off. I am sad that they will not get a real graduation. I miss seeing my colleagues and having chats about difficult situations or just bouncing ideas off one another about how to improve our SW programme, and sometimes just talking about our research. I should also be preparing for two conferences: one on gender and violence and the other on social work education. I look forward to conferences as they often leave me feeling motivated and encouraged, and I always get to meet new people who share my passions. I have met amazing people through my job, as well as at conferences, and these face to face meetings are what helps to build the relationships. However, Covid-19 has put so much on hold and has changed how we do so many things. At the start, people said they couldn’t wait for things to return to normal. I’m of the view that we will now have a new normal, and things will not return to how they used to be. Perhaps this is not a bad thing. We have been forced to be creative with how we do our job, stay connected to others, and basically change significant parts of our lives.
As I reflect on my PhD research, which explores the interactions between statutory social workers and women who have been subjected to domestic abuse, I consider how Covid-19 has impacted on both the social workers and women living with domestic abuse. I think about how I was immersing myself in the research by travelling with social workers on their way to see a family, and interviewing them about the situation; then observing the interactions between the social worker and the mother, as I felt this was the most effective way of trying to really understand the relationship and dynamics between the two. My research design encourages me to consider the under the surface emotions, by reflecting on my own emotional response to the interactions. This is also something that practitioners do as they reflect on their interactions with children and families.
With the current lockdown situation however, only high-risk cases are being visited face-to-face by social workers, and often after a risk assessment is completed. Social workers are having to adjust how they try to assess family situations virtually, which is something that has not been thought to be necessary in a profession in which face-to-face contact is placed at such high importance. Social workers are often taught about observation skills and being in the home to try to get a feel of what living in that home might be like for a child. Harry Ferguson (2018) has written about the importance of getting close to children and how social workers need to get close to the lives and routines of children by using all of their senses when walking around the home and interacting with those in the home. You need to be able to feel the environment and consider all of the senses, which you just cannot do through a computer.
The Guardian reported that during the early weeks of Covid-19, referrals to children’s services dropped (Weale, 2020), with some areas in England reporting a decrease of more than 50%. This is significant, especially as the increase in domestic abuse cases increased, which was reported by the Local Government Association. Research has shown that up to 2/3 of cases presented to child protection conferences involve domestic abuse which has left me concerned about what is happening in these homes (Stanley, et al, 2011). Karen Ingala Smith, founder of the Counting Dead Women project, which records killings of women by men in the UK, found at least 16 killings between 23 March and 12 April, including those of children. In the same time frame over the last 10 years, there was an average of 5 women killed. This demonstrates a significant increase during Covid-19 lockdown.
Although I do not always feel that domestic abuse cases should be referred to children’s services, I am concerned about the children, and the women, who have been told to ‘stay home’ by the government. Government guidance did change to state that people who needed to leave their home due to violence could do so, and they would be able to access support. As many referrals come from education providers and other professionals, it is not a surprise that referrals to children’s services decreased. And as people were forced to stay in due to concerns about the virus continuing to spread and take even more lives, families who were already struggling began to struggle more. There are no excuses for someone perpetrating domestic abuse against another, but it is important to acknowledge that during times of heightened stress, this can exacerbate the triggers. As some families are struggling more financially, children being at home all day, and the overall anxiety that many people are feeling about the lockdown, this does place more stress on families.
There is evidence to suggest that some social workers feel there have been some positives in conducting visits, assessments and meetings virtually during the pandemic. This has been echoed by the early findings of a research project led by Featherstone and Bowyer (2020). Some social workers state that by utilising video calling with older children and also with parents, this has actually cut through some of the barriers. Their initial findings are that some practitioners feel this new way of working has made them less reactive and more reflective, and the interactions are more meaningful. Social workers have had to be creative with the direct work they are doing with children. Some of this has been positive, but it is more difficult with babies and young children. Many feel that young people are used to communicating via video calls, and often do not want to meet their social worker at school or at the local café, as they don’t want to be seen as someone with a social worker. Some social workers feel that parents are quite isolated during this time so perhaps they are just pleased to have someone to speak to, and without them seeing the pen and paper used to take notes, it may feel less intense.
On the other hand, social workers are concerned about the limit of what they can do via virtual platforms. It can be difficult to have a private conversation with a woman about domestic abuse, as social workers cannot be sure that the perpetrator is not in the home and listening to the conversation. How are the interactions between social workers and women who have been subjected to domestic abuse been affected by the change in how they interact with one another? Even if a social worker goes to the home, it is more likely they will not be able to speak to the woman on her own, without the perpetrator being around. Doing virtual visits does not allow a social worker to see someone’s entire body, so bruises and marks may be missed, which may have prompted further discussion in person. Therefore, it is difficult to get a full picture, and this could impact on the outcomes of assessments, and concerns may be missed.
In my research, women have told me that what they want from social workers is to be build a relationship of trust, not of blame. Some social workers feel it is more difficult to build a trusting relationship with women, if their only contact is over the phone or virtually as it takes away the personal touch. They’re also concerned that they are not able to visit and observe the lived experiences of the children, or the women. There is limited scope for being able to observe body language and interactions between those who live in the home. Are social workers able to build the same level of rapport with someone during a virtual visit, especially an initial visit? How does this impact on the emotional support a social worker is able to provide? Perhaps some virtual online work will become more common place in social work after the pandemic, but the questions remain as to how the pandemic has impacted on the rapport building and engagement between social workers and families who have been subjected to domestic abuse. We will have to wait and see what the new normal brings.
Kim Detjen, Senior Lecturer Social Work and PhD Student, University of East London
Featherstone, B. and Bowyer, S. (2020). ‘Social work with children and families in the pandemic (part three)’ Research in Practice. https://www.researchinpractice.org.uk/children/news-views/2020/june/social-work-with-children-and-families-in-the-pandemic-part-three/
Ferguson, H. (2018). ‘Making home visits: Creativity and the embodied practices of home visiting in social work and child protection’. Qualitative Social Work, 17(1), 65–80.
Ingala Smith, K. (2020) ‘Coronavirus Doesn’t Cause Men’s Violence Against Women’. https://kareningalasmith.com/2020/04/15/coronavirus-doesnt-cause-mens-violence-against-women/
Stanley, N., Miller, P., Foster, H. and Thomson, G. (2011) ‘Children’s Experiences of Domestic Violence: Developing an Integrated Response from Police and Child Protection Services’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26 (12), pp. 2372-2391.