Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 2nd Edition Editorial

Second Edition Editorial

Ramadan Mubarak. 

It is a privilege to be writing this editorial for the 2nd edition of this free online magazine exploring social work and social work-related issues in the time of Covid-19. I have had a front row seat as the articles have come in and have greatly enjoyed interacting with the diverse range of contributors through the editing process. Each has provided, in their own way, from their own patch of the Earth, a story of, or relating to, social work in the time of COVID-19. Our heartfelt thanks to all our contributors.

We start with sad news of the passing of a much-loved and respected social work colleague, Dr Michele Raithby, who worked in the social work department at Swansea University and with the social work MA programme at Cardiff University. We send our condolences to those who knew and loved Michele, and in particular to her wife, Karen. We celebrate Michele’s life and career by commencing this edition with an obituary written by two of her colleagues, with support from Karen.


As we go to press, we would also like to take the opportunity to send our thoughts and prayers to the family, friends and colleagues of social worker Muhammed Islam of Birmingham Children’s Trust, who we have just learned has died of suspected Covid-19. 

إِنَّا لِلَّٰهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

A number of the articles in this, and the last, edition raise concerns about the potential erosion of rights and legal protections for those we support as a result of measures implemented by the state, ostensibly in relation to Covid-19.  Some of these concerns were articulated in the last edition by Carolyne Willow of campaigning organisation Article 39. Yesterday, some of those concerns manifested when the government announced changes to secondary legislation relating to child and family social work in England. Those changes came into force today. Carolyne Willow provides an analysis in a blog on Article 39’s website. We strongly recommend readers read it and consider joining the campaign to shine a light on, and oppose, these changes. 

Elsewhere, we carry two pieces about the importance of bridging the digital divide in pandemic, one from people with lived experience and the other from a social work academic. A social worker in Camden reminds us of the vitality and power of community-led solutions. Three academics advocate for the social model in re-imagining approaches to child protection in pandemic, while two more explore the implications of securitisation as response to pandemic. A team leader in a youth service in Scotland describes how the crisis has impacted and will continue to impact on the work of his team.  The myth of Covid-19 as “equal opportunities disease” is laid bare in two excellent and illuminating pieces on the disproportionate impact on BME/BAME people, one from an academic and one from a person with lived experience of receiving services. We have two pieces on the impact of the crisis on social work students – one from a collective at the Master of Social Work at Durham University (of which I am alumnus) on ways to support students and the other from a social work lecturer exploring the impact on practice placement opportunities. An academic and a research consultant in Scotland contribute a powerful and urgent discussion of the impact of lockdown on the experiences of women with learning disabilities affected by gender based violence. The General Secretary of the Social Workers’ Union gives his views on the importance of advocating for the profession at this time. We proudly carry a piece on the importance of not letting children in care slip even further out of view during the crisis while a care leaver and activist offers some sparkling insights in the first of possible series of video messages. A group of local authority social workers describe their approach to adapting child protection practice in an unprecedented, evolving situation. And we end with a moving, hopeful piece on the life and soul of Becca, a nurse who died of Covid-19, written by her friend.  

I would like to use the privilege of this platform to express my respect and gratitude to workers, volunteers and informal carers everywhere who are doing essential work in hospitals, homes, care homes, shops, services and supply chains everywhere, too often without the necessary protection. In particular, in light of deplorable pay and difficult working conditions for many of our skilled care and support workers, I appeal to social workers to advocate as strongly for proper recognition, remuneration and protection for these essential workers as we do for our own workforce. This crisis has highlighted once again that they have precious little in the way of formal representation for their rights and interests as workers. Without them much of our work would have little effect for we are but part of a bigger, richer tapestry of support that includes them and other valued workers. 

While many social workers directly address the daily impact of COVID-19 on the lives of those we hope to support, I am also aware of others expressing feelings of frustration and guilt at not being able to provide the support they would like to in the current circumstances preventing the in-person contact we have until now relied on to undertake our roles. I recently commenced a role in a specialist multi-disciplinary team, arriving just as the lockdown began. While I have not been able to get out and meet people, my colleagues and I have been providing vital telephone support to the people we support, their families and carers, paid and unpaid. We have encountered ethical dilemmas arising from disruptions to care arrangements due to social distancing and self-isolation measures. Negotiating these has required that particular, legally literate, rights-focused, theory- and research-informed lens that social work brings.

In doing these things, I have been reminded of the importance of listening to and paying attention to people’s stories. The big stories about their lives and what happened to them that led them into contact with services but also those seemingly small stories about who they saw when they went to the shops that morning, or the funny thing the carer said yesterday, or the kindness of a stranger. In this strangest and most worrying of times, we can still listen. We can still learn. A large part of our job as social workers is to pay attention to and articulate how the bigger picture impacts on the small places. For many social workers, it will be in the post-crisis period that they find they are most needed, for the social implications of the pandemic will reverberate down through the years. In the meantime, we can listen to and gather the stories, use them where we can to inform decisions, effect positive change and help maintain a focus on the person in a rapidly changing situation. 

We have been pleased to learn this magazine has global reach and to have received messages of support and solidarity from as far afield as North America and New Zealand. Whether you are in Cumbernauld or Vancouver, Northampton or Auckland, we hope this magazine provides something useful, interesting and/or of meaning to you.

We are inviting submissions for the next edition up to end of Tuesday May 5th 2020. (Email SW2020covid19@gmail.com). We are particularly keen to hear from anyone who feels they are not being heard, for whatever reason, in the public discourse re Covid-19. The spirit and intent of this enterprise is to offer a platform to anyone who would like to submit (see our updated submissions criteria). If you have any suggestions as to how we can make the magazine more accessible and inclusive please let us know and we will see what we can do with the resources at our disposal.

Finally, we have been delighted to hear this magazine has proven a useful resource for student social workers. We hope it contributes something for career-long learners too. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a reflective exercise for social workers at any stage in their careers:

If you were outside the profession looking in during this time, what would you see? Hear? Think? Feel? What would you want to see, hear, think or feel? Are there any differences between what you perceive and what you want to perceive in current social work and, if so, how could those differences be reconciled?

Try it. You never know. You might find yourself writing a chapter in the future history of social work… 

Thank you for reading. And, as a good friend often says:

Watch your wellbeing.

Christian Kerr is a social worker in England, and member of the SW2020 Covid-19 editorial collective

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020

Second Edition Contents List

April 24th, 2020

Christian Kerr – Editorial

Abyd Quinn-Aziz and Dr Christian Beech, with the support of Karen, Michele’s wife – Obituary: Dr Michele Raithby 

APLE (Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience) Collective – Crossing the Digital Divide is essential to ensuring that the response to COVID-19 includes us all

Andrew Eccles – Covid-19, social care and the impact of British exceptionalism

Becca Dove – Someone to watch over me 

Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta and Kate Morris – On unravelling and re-imagining: child protection in a pandemic 

David McKendrick and Jo Finch – Social work, Covid-19 and securitisation 

David Orr – Social work in pandemic 

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh – Digital exclusion and care leavers: It’s time for social work to join this fight 

Dr Sweta Rajan-Rankin – Covid-19 as an “equal opportunities disease”? – Why BAME communities are among the hardest hit 

Durham MSW Collective – Lessons in resilience: supporting social work students during the Covid-19 crisis

Gillian MacIntyre and Alisa Stewart – For some, home is not safe: Considering the experiences of women with learning disabilities affected by gender based violence during Covid-19 

John McGowan – Recognition for social work is especially meaningful during the COVID-19 epidemic 

John Radoux – Are children in care in danger of slipping out of view again?

Leigh Zyweck, Elliott Davis and Richard Devine – Child protection practice in an evolving era 

Michael Clarke, Tim Fisher and Trevor Appleson – The future [VIDEO] 

Paula Beesley – Covid-19: the impact on social work placements 

Raza Griffiths – “We are going to do this together” 

Alice Park – Grieving, hopefully 

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Abyd Quinn Aziz, Christian Beech and Karen

Obituary: Dr Michele Raithby

Dear friend and academic colleague Dr Michele Raithby passed away at the end of March after a short but courageous battle with cancer.  She leaves an indelible mark on social work education in Wales and on all who she worked with.  Only the week before I had seen a joyful picture of her celebrating her marriage with Karen, at Swansea Registry Office from the 25th February.

Following a degree in Anthropology, Michele worked in a variety of educational, social care and research settings until qualifying with a Masters in Social Work from Oxford University in 1986.  After practicing generically in London, Michele specialised in adult care, then the regulation and inspection of residential care settings before undertaking further research and moving into social work education.  From 1997 to 2008, Michele worked at Nottingham Trent University, and was Deputy Head of Department and Programme Lead for part-time and distance-learning social work undergraduate degrees.

Since 2008 Michele worked at Swansea University initially as a Senior Lecturer but since 2017 as an Associate Professor and was Programme Director for the MSc in Social Work between 2014 and 2016.  Michele was an impassioned advocate for students and was deservedly awarded the University’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2016, for her ‘ability to communicate her subject with flair and passion’ as well as her ‘outstanding support of the professional and personal development of students.  In 2017, Michele was awarded her PhD from Royal Holloway University of London on older people and domiciliary care.

I got to know Michele when she became external examiner to the MA in Social Work here at Cardiff University from 2013-17, where she became an immensely helpful critical friend.  I also got to learn of her broader work with the service user group at Swansea University, although her research interests ranged on sexuality in social care and innovative approaches with older people as well as social work education.  A piece of work that I found particularly inspiring was her combining interprofessional education with the involvement of people who use services and carers.[1]

Michele will be a great loss to the world of social work in that she lived to her ideals.  Quoted in the Western Mail talking about social work placements, Michele said “The students will interact with members of the public…They need to have good values and ethics, they need to be committed, and they need to know what they are letting themselves in for.”[2]  We send our condolences to her friends, family colleagues and student as well as remembering all those that have lost their lives in the current situation.

Abyd Quinn Aziz (Cardiff University) with Dr Christian Beech (Swansea University) and with the support of Karen, Michele’s wife.


[1] Terry, J., Raithby, M., Cutter, J., Murphy, F. 2015 A menu for learning: a World Café approach for user involvement and inter-professional learning on mental health Social Work Education 1 22

[2] Western Mail, January 2020

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 APLE Collective

Crossing the Digital Divide is essential to ensuring that the response to COVID-19 includes us all

For the APLE (Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience) Collective, digital exclusion means exclusion from voice, from an ability to participate in the everyday, it means being silenced. It means our knowledge is ignored which exacerbates economic and social divides, as a result a digital divide opens. Digital divide doesn’t just mean having access to wifi, but the ability to pay for it. Our communities who live on a low income or social security benefits are unable to pay for this access. The digital divide also incurs expenses when paying for hardware (computers and devices) and finally people may not have the opportunity to access support to help them use technology. We are campaigning, asking the government to find practical solutions to cross the digital divide and introduce free wi-fi for vulnerable low income groups.

According to the Office for National Statistics, ‘in 2018 there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10.0% of the adult UK population’ who are non-internet usersCOVID19 has shone a spotlight on this digital divide and the  effects of digital exclusion on low income communities. Communities are feeling isolated, forgotten about and unable to communicate their expertise and thoughts. We at the Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience (APLE) Collective are all about amplifying voice, connecting people and this is proving difficult without technology. 

Life is getting tougher for the nation as a whole, people are feeling frightened for their jobs. As the Guardian reports that 950,000  apply for Universal Credit in two weeks, many are experiencing the delays, bureaucracy and inadequacies of Universal Credit for the first time. People are trapped in houses without access to food supplies and without access to the digital world; cannot get news updates, public health notices, home-educate children, access food deliveries or update Universal Credit job searches. In line with the public health response to the pandemic, libraries have closed. For many locked in poverty, libraries were the only source of online access, a place to job search, access educational resources for the family and stay in touch with the outside world. 

Accessing the internet has always been an uphill battle for people in poverty. Now that social distancing measures have pulled the shutters down on public places that offered free access, that struggle is even harder.

“Before the lockdown, my daughter stayed after school every day to use the internet there for her homework. Now, without wifi of our own, I had to swallow my pride to ask our neighbour if we could piggyback onto his network from our flat. He agreed, but I feel like I should be able to chip in for his bill so that I don’t have to rely too much on him.”

– Gloria in Scotland

Although some schools have managed to give tablets to students who need them, Gloria’s daughter, age 15, received nothing. Before making this arrangement with her neighbour, Gloria said: “I had to buy a pay-as-you-go bundle on my phone because otherwise she could not do her homework.”

Being excluded from what has been for most of the nation, an almost exclusively digital coping response to the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 lockdown, is having both practical and emotional impacts on people locked in poverty. APLE Collective member organisations are finding that, in some areas, initiatives in the community, for example when volunteers are at hand to do your shopping have been advertised only on websites and via social media platforms. 

Financial exclusion and digital exclusion often go hand in hand.

People on very low incomes with no access to credit are forced to use outlets and services that are more expensive and less reputable. Before the lockdown, a woman in south London tried to buy a refurbished smartphone on a very small budget. Because she has no fixed abode, she cannot open even a basic bank account and has no bank card. So she used a small shop that would take cash payments; but they sold her a faulty phone with no warranty. She then discovered that she could have purchased a new phone for a cheaper price at a high street shop — however that chain already had a no-cash policy in place and she did not qualify for their credit service, making it impossible for her to shop there. Having no smartphone during the lockdown has effectively cut her off from her support network.

Pleading for wifi and having to rely on others

Vitalis is a refugee from Cameroon in Manchester who is the lead person on destitution for RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research). He says:

“Given the fact that I do not have wifi at home, even before the lockdown I was unable to download important documents at home while researching with my phone. This did not help me to manage my time efficiently since casework which should have been done at home was forced to be completed the next day in RAPAR where I can gain access to internet. At moment the lockdown has worsened the whole situation because I cannot go out to where I can connect to the network. I can only send e-mails if I beg to be connected to someone’s wifi.”

Barriers to accessing benefits

Improving digital access and skills holds the potential to have a life changing affect on those of us living in poverty through COVID-19 Lockdown as Karen, not her real name, trying to access social security support describes;

‘I’m sick of getting texts off the dole asking me to log on to my journal…I’ve told them before I have no internet. I have been trying to ring them, but can’t get through. I’m worried sick. Will I still get my payment which is due this week, do I have to be doing job searches, they are not really telling us much…‘ 

The benefits system has been moving steadily on-line and people struggling with access and technology can receive sanctions for a perceived failure to comply

What is being done?

There are some positive and compassionate moves being made by government to try to buffer the economy from the effects of COVID-19. The Department for Culture Media and Sport have announced recently that they are working with mobile phone companies to improve access for low income groups. However what is little mentioned in the rhetoric so far, are those almost completely excluded from the digital world, as the reflection of Liz, not her real name, living on a low income illustrates;

‘How am I supposed to know what is going on, I’m stuck in my house and I get that it’s for our own good, but I can’t get my shopping. I think I have enough in the house to last me a few days. My family live out of town and I don’t know who can help me? I see things on the news that communities are coming together and getting notes of support through their door. I’m 64 years old, can’t get about and nobody {up until Thrive getting in touch} in this town has asked if I am ok. Why are they not letting us know about any support. This is really scary’

If only wifi were free….

Vitalis, as a member of RAPAR, and a refugee, can imagine many ways that free wifi would transform his life:

“Getting in contact with my lawyer either through e-mail or Whatsapp would be a plus, because I am unable to get to her at this moment. I would be able to carry on more research using the internet and thus perfecting my skills. During my leisure periods I would be able to listen to music and watch movies of my choice. In a nutshell, it would be very important for me because it would enable me to stay in touch with the rest of the world … In short, it would be useful to learn more, communicate and see how the world operates. The internet enhances self-studies and research and I absolutely need to be part of this.”

What can be done to bridge the digital divide?

These unprecedented times, require unprecedented solutions. The Good Things Foundation state that ‘providing everyone in the UK with the essential digital skills they need by 2028 will lead to a benefit of £15 for every £1 invested, and a net present value of £21.9 billion’.  

APLE Collective ask the Government to find practical solutions to cross the digital divide and introduce free wifi for vulnerable low-income groups. We ask that this work includes and involves the voices of people with lived experience, in order that their response is both timely and effective in low-income communities.

We encourage social workers to ask their clients how the digital divide impacts on them and to assess their needs and aspirations around digital inclusion. For children and families, this could include assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, and the use of associated monies.

This article is adapted from series of blogs by the APLE Collective about the lived experience of people trapped in poverty and living through the COVID-19 lockdown.

We invite you to join us, to get involved and to contribute to our campaigning:

Twitter: @aplecollective

Email: contact@aplecollective.com

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Andrew Eccles

Covid-19, social care, and the impact of British exceptionalism

Events, data and argument are in flux as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds. But one theme is emerging with greater clarity; that the policy response of the United Kingdom government has moved from being disconcerting to more deeply troubling. The concerns are fourfold. First the response strategy was fatally weakened by indecision at a crucial stage; the UK had its very own ‘ten days that shook the world’ in March. While politicians leaned on the notion that they were following the scientific advice and it was the scientific advice that was changing (a position uncritically adopted by the BBC), what was changing more significantly was the politics; specifically the political acceptability of the projections of fatalities in the ‘herd immunity’ strategy that the UK government had adopted. Second, the advantage of advance warning was spurned. The World Health Organisation announced on January 30th that Covid-19 represented a global emergency. Italy moved to ‘lockdown’ on March 10th, the same day that saw the start of the Cheltenham festival, attended by 68,000 on March 13th alone, and one week after the UK Prime Minister indicated that, during his recent hospital visit, ‘I shook hands with everybody’. Third, the framing of the crisis has been around war: the Prime Minister announced ‘We must act like any wartime government… this enemy can be deadly’; there is a ‘war cabinet’, while media management of the crisis has been all too evident –  fromthe BBC referring to a hospital ICU as  ‘the frontline in a war’- to the passivity of questioning at press briefings. This is no accident: critical enquiry can more easily be framed as subversive in this climate. The unprecedented length and pointedness of rebuttals by the Department of Health and Social Care to critical journalism are matched by their language; uncharacteristically unscientific, and more evidently political. Fourth, the crisis has revealed the threadbare condition of the UK’s public services. Exercise Cygnus, in October 2016, modelled the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic. The report itself remains classified, but the few public announcements from it point to very serious shortcomings in the ability of health and social care services to cope. The lack of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is the most visible sign of disarray, but contingency planning for the provision of ventilators, and systematic access to testing have been woeful by comparable European standards.

These introductory comments are based on sifting through a mass of contemporary commentary; for the sake of brevity of referencing, the New York Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Economist are to the fore; specific data further on will be referenced in full. But the comments are representative, because so few offer vindication of the Government’s strategy to date. I now want to explore what has happened here, with a focus on British exceptionalism; exceptionalism in the language of crisis, in the condition of social care provision, and in the willingness of policy making to pursue a decidedly unconventional approach. 

The surface elements of British exceptionalism are all too visible: in part, the language – Johnson’s rambunctious remark that ‘perhaps you could take it on the chin’ or his father’s comment that Johnson himself ‘almost took one for the team’. The contrast with the gravitas of Merkel or Macron is sharp. But this British exceptionalism has also been evident, more concretely, in social care policy for the past decade, where social care provision – the preponderance of which is for older people – has variously been highlighted as at a ‘tipping point’ (Care Quality Commission, 2017), ‘beyond crisis’ (Collinson, 2016). Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Phillips and Simpson, 2018) indicate a real terms per person funding decrease in adult social care by local authorities, comparing fiscal years 2009-10 with 2017-18, of 9%. Within this overall figure, the thirty areas of highest deprivation in England saw cuts, per person, of 17%. The gravity of the issue is reflected in the title of the recent Parliamentary report Social care funding: time to end a scandal (HL 792: 2019), which offered ample evidence of the scale of the crisis in social care and of the multiple stalled policy initiatives of the past two decades. 

Part of the reason for this crisis in social care – aside from the multiple impacts of ‘austerity’ has been another example of British exceptionalism; that is, the UK – more than anywhere globally – has invested heavily in a speculative policy – going back to 2006 – around the efficacy of care technologies, such as Telecare, as a key solution to the social care crisis. This has prompted a long running, but largely ignored, critique; ‘a hazardous investment’ as Pols and Willems (2011: 6) noted; as indeed it has proved to be, without a social care ‘plan B’ in its wake. Thus a perfect storm of misguided policy and the multiple impacts of ‘austerity’ has left social care in the UK in a particularly exposed place (Eccles, 2020). 

British exceptionalism in policy language also accompanied Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister. In his victory address he stated:  ‘I am announcing now that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all’ (Reuters, 2019 para. 10). Given the baseline – the cumulative impact of a decade of austerity, negligible workforce development and an underperforming Telecare strategy, this was an improbable claim. The remark was political theatre, but leaves Government potentially held electorally hostage. 

I now want to consider this remark in light of the most immediate crisis in social care presented by Covid-19: deaths in care homes. Reliable – official – figures have been extraordinarily difficult to obtain and, unlike hospital deaths, appear particularly open to interpretation. Academic analysis from Comas-Herrera et al, as of April 17th 2020, has ‘5 countries for which we have official data (Belgium, Canada, France, Ireland and Norway), and where the number of COVID-related deaths [of the total] in care homes ranges from 49% to 64%’. The, authors, the analysis continues: ‘have considered that it is not possible to draw accurate estimates from the data that is currently in the public domain in the United Kingdom’.

Extrapolating from the total number of hospital deaths in the UK would indicate that the estimate of 7,500 deaths from Covid-19 put forward by the National Care Forum on April 20th and Care England on April 21st is reasonable. Given that there has been no testing of care home residents returning after hospital visits with suspected Covid-19, the wholesale lack of accurate testing for care workers, and that the incubation period for the virus is most commonly five days, these figures can be expected to increase. Given the sheer scale of care homes where the virus is now present – the official figure as of mid-April was 13.5%, but as of April 20th the largest care home networks estimated it to be 50% to 70% – the question might better be reframed as: how greatan increase can we expect?

How have we ended up here? The ‘herd immunity’ strategy – whereby 60-80% of the population would contract the virus – was the Government’s preferred approach, based – as it continues to argue – on the ‘available scientific evidence’. But this was not the only scientific evidence. The World Health Organisation had already sounded the alarm on the nature of the Covid-19 in January, as subsequently had the Lancet, and yet ‘herd immunity’ held sway into March. Two factors, theoretically, underpin the validity of this approach: the cocooning of ‘vulnerable’ citizens, based on a robust testing regime, and the ability to deal with the likely levels of hospitalisation from mass infection. It may be that the ‘scientific evidence’ was not adequately linked to the abject lack of preparation for either factor. In terms of testing, the United Kingdom currently sits at less than 25% of the numbers tested in Italy, Spain and Germany, while its critical care beds, per capita, are, respectively, less than 50%, 70% and 20% of these countries. The absence of these contingencies should, presumably, have made a ‘herd immunity’ approach an outstandingly unacceptable risk.

This brings us back to the policy aspect of British exceptionalism and one that may offer an explanation for such an apparently counter-intuitive strategy; that is, the influence of political advisers at the heart of the Prime Minister’s office. Political advisers are not, of course, unique to Britain, but the success of the Brexit campaign has emboldened their status. The recruitment specification for an advisory team, outlined by Johnson’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings, calls for ‘Data scientists and software developers; economists; policy experts; project managers; communication experts […] weirdos and misfits with odd skills’. The Chief Adviser’s own public writing has a consistent thread: a utilitarian approach to problem solving. Whilst social work involves a degree of utilitarian calculus (it forms the basis of most resource allocation) it – crucially – also adheres to codes of ethics where respect for the individual, regardless of circumstance, is of paramount consideration. Social workers understand this tension. Thus the stark utilitarian approach in policy potentially sets it at odds with a key social work value. By proceeding with ‘herd immunity’ without adequate safeguards for ‘vulnerable’ citizens and care workers, allied to the dire state of pandemic readiness already exposed in Exercise Cygnus, there is evidence of a strategy plagued by acts of serious omission. As David Hunter, writing recently in the New England Journal of Medicine (382:e31), notes: ‘Nobody appears to have asked [of the advisers] whether they were working from empirical experience of a highly contagious infectious disease that may be lethal for several percent of older people’. Elsewhere, The German Society for Gerontology and Geriatrics urged its Government, even as the deaths of older people in Germany were at a much lower rate than in the UK, ‘to refrain from measures, the reasons for which are only age based’. Social workers now need to be asking the same questions about the remarkable acts of omission in the UK’s strategy.

Andrew Eccles, Lecturer in Social Work and Social Policy 

References

Eccles (2020) Remote care technologies, older people and the social care crisis in the United Kingdom: a Multiple Streams Approach to understanding the ‘silver bullet’ of telecare policy Ageing & Society doi:10.1017/S0144686X19001776

Hunter, D (2020) Covid-19 and the Stiff Upper Lip — The Pandemic Response in the United Kingdom N Engl J Med 2020; 382:e31 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2005755

Parliament. House of Lords. (2019) Economic Affairs Committee. Social care funding: time to end a national scandal. HL392. London, The Stationery office

Pols, J, and Willems, D (2011) Innovation and evaluation: Taming and unleashing telecare technology. Sociology of Health & Illness 33, 3, 484-98.

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Becca Dove

Someone to watch over me

On the Tuesday morning of week four of the shutdown, I’m pacing up and down my daughter’s bedroom on the phone to Sharley. Sharley is manager of the NW5 Play Project in Kentish Town and she’s Camden right the way through to her boots. Sharley is like an artery; she pumps goodness and love through the tower blocks surrounding the playground that is home to her project. After a tragic fatal stabbing in Kentish Town in 2018, it was Sharley and her project who opened their doors for the community in the hours that followed, to give sanctuary for the grief, anger and shock that had no place to go.  I genuinely adore this woman. 

Sharley and I are talking about how families are doing during the shutdown. Sharley had been out delivering activity packs for the children on the neighbouring estate. She tells me how much the parents wanted to talk (from a distance), how the lack of Wi-Fi in the blocks was a major cause of frustration. Sharley never tells me personal details and I would never ask for them. But 10 minutes with her on the phone and I’ve got a clear idea what help families would generally find more useful right now. 

A few days later, I had a Twitter conversation with Camden Mobile Foodbank, an incredible organisation who got off the ground at lightening pace to help get emergency food to Camden residents during the shutdown. They used the phrase ‘someone to watch over me’. That stuck. 

Our focus on community in Camden family early help is to try and make sure families have someone to watch over them, not when (or indeed because) professionals feel worried, but someone to be there in the good times and someone to turn to in the dark and difficult moments, letting them know the world is ok. Professionals in public services are privileged to come into a family’s life, but for the briefest of times. We are joining a family’s support network (which often includes a community group or organisation) as extra temporary scaffolding, not to dismantle, re-assemble or, worse yet, ignore what is already there. And where that network doesn’t exist or doesn’t feel strong, part of the job must be to help connect a family with people like Sharley. 

Because they are the constant-be’s. The people who know all the mums, dads and carers who live near you, who are part of the WhatsApp groups on your street, who know which chemist is open late within a half mile walk when your baby has a temperature, who will open their doors to you without question in the middle of the night when a loved one has been tragically taken from you.

As a state-delivered service, getting alongside community has helped us to give better help to our families over the years and, importantly, to locate the role we play within that community context. Being able to pick up the phone during COVID to our friends in local Camden community organisations has meant rapid, local support for our families needing help or supplies. The state does not have all of the answers all of the time; the local community has given the solution to a problem during COVID more times than I can count. 

When one of our families couldn’t wash their clothes or sheets because the laundrette was closed, a local resident did their weekly wash. When a family who was shielding had a poorly dog and couldn’t get to a vet, a local couple responded to our shout out for help on the Camden mutual aid Facebook page, and took the dog to the nearest free pet hospital 5 miles away (the dog is now home and much better).  When a family were self-isolating and needed an urgent prescription from the local pharmacy, one call to the nearest community centre and a volunteer was on their bike to collect it. I could go on.  

This isn’t exclusive to this extraordinary crisis-driven period either. In the ordinary times (whatever they are), when we come to the end of our time with a family  – whether the newly arrived family, or the family who have fled domestic violence and come to Camden with no support network, or the family who have felt alone or overwhelmed – to know they are connected with a community organisation who will love them like we loved them is important. It’s our job not just to be connected with the community, but to understand ourselves as a part of it, making a contribution to it in the good times and in the dark and difficult moments too. 

One of my abiding memories of this crisis will be ringing Sarah at Kentish Town Community Centre to ask her if she’d like easter eggs for her foodbank, packing up a van with 100 eggs and three hours later seeing photos of Brecknock and Torriano primary schools putting them in happiness hampers to distribute to their families, many of them on low incomes or in food poverty due to COVID. A number of them are families we work with. Community collaboration and cooperation is everywhere. It helps keep people safe and well. Our role running a state-provided family service – of any type – is to lend our hands and hearts to that constant collective effort, not the other way around. 

That way everyone has someone, like a Sharley, to watch over them. Not just during a pandemic. All the time. 

Becca Dove, family worker and Head of Service for Family Early Help for London Borough of Camden

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Brid Feathersone, Anna Gupta and Kate Morris

On unravelling and re-imagining: child protection in a pandemic

Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of history making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles – and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations (Wright Mills 1959 (2000): 226).

In our book Protecting Children: A Social Model (Featherstone, Gupta, Morris and White, 2018) we argued for the importance of exploring the connection between public issues and private troubles. We noted how this sense of connection had been eroded over the decades with the construction of a settlement where individuals were deemed solely responsible for meeting their needs for shelter, food, dignity and social connection.  Any failures in meeting such needs were also their responsibility.  As Rebecca Solnit (2020) has noted, the wave of privatisation that characterised our neoliberal age ‘began with the privatisation of the human heart, the withdrawal from a sense of a shared fate and social bonds’. Truly, all became privatised and individualised as a series of long-standing connections and their dynamic interplay were obscured if not denied: public/ private, social/ individual, structure/ agency. 

Our focus in the book was on how these processes got played out in the disconnect that had emerged between the activities associated with child protection and what was happening in the lives of actual children and their families. Thus, child protection involved professionals assessing risks within individual families, primarily through home visits. There they explored the actions or inactions of individual parents with the causes for these largely sought in a range of psychological or family systems theories, some more sophisticated than others.

In the meantime, the world outside the home was changing at a dizzying rate with huge implications for children and their families. Policies pursued, from 2010 onwards, meant the risks faced by families from poverty, poor housing and the hollowing out of social and physical infrastructures mounted relentlessly with increasing numbers of children with not enough to eat, insecure housing, nowhere safe to play and no libraries to nourish them. These changes have been framed as social harms; harms resulting from the policy choices and activities of local and national states and corporations which impact upon the welfare of individuals and groups (Dorling et al, 2008:14). 

At a time when it needed to be understood more than ever, the relationship between social and individual, public and private became hopelessly confused particularly in relation to how causation is understood. To confront the role poverty and inequality played in child abuse and neglect was seen by key Government Minsters, such as Michael Gove on the right, as excusing bad parenting and by those, on the left of the political spectrum, as pathologizing those living in poverty.  

This was not, of course, unique to child protection. As Sayer (2017:155) noted in relation to the Troubled Families programme:

Radicals are likely to want to repudiate the programme and to reject its blaming of individuals and families, but in so doing they expose themselves to accusations of denying facts of anti-social behaviour …  Rather than deny that any problematic behaviour can be due to injuries of class, we need to frame it in a way that acknowledges both the behaviour and the more complex causality that produces it.

In the Social Model we argued for a new story rooted in evidence and values. We sought to avoid binary choices by acknowledging the realities of the links between poverty and rates of child maltreatment as evidenced in a range of international studies. We addressed the challenges posed by those who harmed others while carrying painful histories of being harmed themselves. We also challenged a deeply entrenched national story about fairness to point out that children from the most deprived parts of the country were over ten times more likely to come into care. 

We suggested the need for a story that rooted the protection of children within broader understandings of what all families need to flourish. We wanted the state to be bigger and yet smaller, closer to home.  Thus, we argued for robust social protections, a re-imagining of the promise of the welfare state with decent income support strategies, housing, education and health for all.  But we also wanted to re-think how services were delivered with a focus on the local, on community and, crucially, a commitment to co-production.  We noted the importance of fostering social connections and argued for a de-centring of the professional and professionally led approaches to child protection. We argued that collective strategies needed to be considered in a project that promoted community work, locality-based approaches and peer support and was founded on seeing families as a source of expertise about system design and best practice. 

A social unravelling and re-imagining

So, two years on in the midst of a pandemic, how does our analysis stand up and what needs rethinking for child protection?

The arguments around poverty, inequality and the need for a new and robust social settlement constitute a new orthodoxy as countless commentators note the need to value care, look after each other and meet basic needs. Of course, how much of this will endure post pandemic remains to be seen.  There is no inevitability about a progressive future, it will have to be fought for. 

A model based upon visiting individual homes, and using the self as the resource to assess strengths and risks, is put under severe pressure in a pandemic.  Fears of infection have led to serious curtailment of face-to-face contact with children, families and other team members and the closure of schools has meant the withdrawal of children from official oversight unless they fall into a particular category of vulnerability. All the while, there is a cacophony of voices counselling that behind each closed door is likely to be found abuse, fear and danger. 

Perhaps, paradoxically, in this climate we are hearing accounts from social workers of their adoption of practices that encompass practical help (such as with food parcels) and expressions of care and solidarity as they worry about the welfare of families in very difficult circumstances. An intensified understanding of the inequalities in families’ experiences of home and environment is also apparent. Such developments may be evidence of what writers, such as Nussbaum (2001), have noted in terms of the possibility for practices of compassion to emerge when we confront our shared vulnerability to misfortune.  Social workers are confronted in a way that many others are not with the reality that, whilst we are all indeed vulnerable to the virus, we are not all equally vulnerable (Solnit, 2020). They face the daily reality of what a lockdown means to those living in overcrowded and unsafe conditions with little access to outside spaces.   

Meanwhile, they must engage with understandable anxieties about violence and abuse and navigate territory that has always been uncomfortable but is probably more so at the moment. Such territory is underpinned by a seldom, fully articulated, belief that social workers (or professionals?) are all that stands between a child and death at the hands of a dangerous parent.   Might this be the moment to confront what has always been the reality- families spend most of their lives beyond the professional gaze anyway?  As has been noted:

If we help a family for six months, and if we do one home visit a week for two hours, the family would spend: 52 hours with the worker, 2860 hours in and with their community[1]

In accounts provided to Featherstone (2020), three weeks into the lockdown, one social worker noted:  

‘In normal times we don’t seek to link families to communities around them, but rather make interventions personal and individualised… and then criticise families if we feel they’re becoming ‘dependent’ on us….  this crisis has highlighted how dependent we are on individualised home visits’ (Featherstone, 2020). 

That professional dependency may be hiding important truths about who is protecting children and from what.  Going forward could mobilising community resources not offer more sustainable futures for all? 

To conclude, it seems there remains much to do to make a social model a reality at many levels but this crisis is offering important spaces to keep thinking (amidst the panic!)

Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta and Kate Morris 

References 

Dorling, D et al (2008) Criminal obsessions: why harm matters more than crime, London, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. and White, S (2018) Protecting Children: A Social Model, Bristol, Policy Press

Sayer, A. (2017) ‘Responding to the Troubled families Programme: framing the injuries of inequality’, Social Policy and Society, 16(1): 155-164.

Nussbaum, M (2001) Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge,  Cambridge University Press

Wright Mills, C (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford, Oxford university Press


[1] Becca Dove, personal communication, 2018

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 David Mckendrick, Jo Finch

Social work, Covid-19 and securitisation

Introduction

In this reflective article we set about to critically explore the UK’s Covid-19 emergency legislation. We argue that whilst, on the surface, it appears a reasonable response to an incredibly unusual, frightening and critical situation, we remain concerned about the long term implications of the most restrictive and coercive emergency legislation passed in the UK to date. We argue that the military metaphors currently in popular usage, act to obscure the long-term ramifications of this legislation. We discuss the possible implications for current and future social work practice and argue that far from being unusual, this legislation is a natural progression from the development and rapid growth of  securitised social policy, represented, most starkly for example in current counter-terrorism work in which social work has been co-opted into.

Covid-19

At the time of writing, we are now entering the fifth week of what has come to be commonly known as “lockdown”. The rules of this largely self-imposed arrangement are that we should stay at home, only leaving the house for a limited number of reasons. We are also under requirements to self-isolate for 14 days if someone in the household has suspected Covid-19. Those that are vulnerable because of serious health are required to continuously self-isolate for up to 12 weeks and the term “shielding” has come into common parlance. The phrase “stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”, is continually repeated by politicians and government pfficials, on the daily Covid-19 Government briefings, other T.V interviews and is continuously repeated on commercials and other media advertising.   Such is its repetitive nature, “Stay At Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” has made us temporarily forget the “See, it Say It, Sorted” message, repeatedly announced on public transport, in relation to potential terrorist acts.  

Invoking the Blitz spirit

The closest experience we have to this current situation, was life during World War Two, when restrictions on freedoms and liberty were common place and formed part of a national effort to defeat an enemy who threatened our way of life, as much as our existence.  Of course, for the vast majority of us, World War Two is not a living memory but a historical and cultural one. We have discussed previously how narratives of the “Blitz spirit” are often invoked when faced with issues of national security and ontological challenge (McKendrick and Finch, 2019). For example, the London Bridge terrorist attack immediately prompted a Blitz Spirit narrative by politicians and the press.  Such narratives portray the populace, as tough and stoical, willing to make significant sacrifices, united by a common enemy, and willing to support and help one another. Of course, our current “enemy” Covid-19, represents a new form of war, one which is not embodied in soldiers or countries, it is an enemy that we cannot see or touch, a silent and invisible foe who can invade our country, our homes and our bodies without being seen or heard. It is an enemy that is more deadly than anything we have previously encountered, with a significant daily death toll in the UK, one which there is no precedence about how to manage, contain and ultimately defeat. 

Military metaphors

Unsurprisingly, our leaders are using the language of war and military metaphors abound. Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to it as a “national emergency” while his Health Secretary Matt Hancock described social distancing measures as “mission critical”. The Queen invoked the wartime spirit of Vera Lynn in an address to the nation by saying “we will meet again”.  NHS staff are positioned as being on the “frontline” of the battle against the virus and whilst other workers have been designated as “key” in this pandemic, including  supermarket workers, teachers, refuse collectors and social workers, our weekly clapping for NHS staff is reminiscent of support for  soldiers on the frontline. 

Securitisation and social policy 

In pre-pandemic and conventional times, we have focused our academic endeavours on how legislation designed to prevent violent extremism adds a securitising dimension to social work practice (see for example, McKendrick and Finch, 2016; 2017 & 2020). We have looked at how particular communities are suspect, and described the subtle ways in which social workers are now increasingly deployed into the “frontline” of the UK Government’s PREVENT strategy. Our concerns about this “securitisation creep” centre on two distinct areas: one is the ways in which current social policy guides society to a more securitised space; the  second is , the impact the securitisation creep  has on the social work profession. Recent Covid-19 inspired events have accelerated this in ways that were, until very recently, unimaginable.

Today we see the vast majority of the populace complying with the government’s instructions on social distancing.  We appear to have accepted dramatic changes to our working practices; we have isolated ourselves from colleagues and friends while engaging in a variety of activities that are counter to the natural social elements of human behaviour. We are compliant in the securitisation of our lives and our communities and we have done so at an exceptional pace and with little or no complaint or protest.  Indeed, current government pronouncements have praised the populace for “following” the rules, despite sustained media focus on those who flout the rules by continuing to have social gatherings, or are perceived to be breaching social distancing rules.  There have also been concerns raised in the press and social media about overzealous interpretation of the emergency legislation by the police`, for example stopping people sunbathing in public parks or indeed, stopping one  family playing in their front garden.   

The government’s Covid-19 emergency legislation therefore is one of the most illiberal pieces of legislation ever to pass through parliament and contains measures that would normally be seen as unthinkable. Yet it is arguably proportionate to the dangers presented by this pandemic.  What concerns us, however, is how quickly the restrictions and extraordinary measures contained in it will be repealed when we emerge from the current circumstances. Our primary concern is that governments prefer security to liberty and may be unlikely to give up some or all of these new powers, particularly in a situation where a return of the virus or something similar is possible. Alongside this, the growing success of localised voluntary support groups, the growth in localised charities, as well as significant fund raising activities for the NHS, may suit the neo-liberal agenda of the retrenchment of the welfare state. 

Social Work and Covid-19

Our second focus relates to the impact the current circumstances will have on the social work profession. We have expressed concerns over the “investigative turn” in child and adult protection social work (McKendrick and Finch, 2020), and the increased involvement of social workers as agents of a punitive and coercive state (McKendrick and Finch, 2017). Social workers are at risk, therefore, of being increasingly deployed to a series of “frontlines” either in the war on terror, feral and dangerous families, or in the current biological war we are living through. We are witnessing the contraction in the role of social workers as the current crisis becomes the new normal. We note the almost fetishized hero worshipping of frontline NHS personnel (despite the fact they have to make difficult decisions about who has access to lifesaving treatment), the weekly clapping, and the deathly silence around social workers and social work activities during the lockdown.  This is despite vocalised and very real concern about the plight of vulnerable children, people living with domestic violence and vulnerable and isolated members of society. Social workers are thus having to make decisions that pose even more distinct ethical and moral dilemmas than “normal”.  This in turn raises questions about the predicament social work is in more generally, questions that go beyond the day to day responses to the crisis to open up a space where we can have a constructive and critical discussion over the causes of the current crisis and its effects.  It seems to us that the social work profession is ideally placed to pose these and other questions and in doing so starting to imagine what our own and other professions might look like when we emerge from the current dystopian circumstances..  There is an opportunity therefore, for social workers to be more vocal about the issues faced by the people they work with and the terrible impact social distancing and being in a lockdown may pose to individuals already at the margins of the public consciousness and understanding.  We suggest challenging the military language in use, as indeed we have previously suggested in relation to a social work fast track training scheme, called Frontline (Finch and Mckendrick, 2017). We suggest the need to resist succumbing to dominant narratives about times of war, unity and localised, non-governmental forms of support and focusing energies on policing our own friends, families, neighbours and communities, which only serves to distract from the machinations of government.  There are signs that the plights of many citizens, the precarious nature of much employment and families only just surviving the economic system will be obscured by our current emergency

Concluding comments

The Covid-19 emergency legislation presents as a reassuring policy, one that may keep us safe from a terrible virus that is responsible for the deaths of many people.  For many however, the lockdown, has far reaching implications.  It is likely that the ramifications of the lockdown will be felt for some time after. It will also contribute, in a variety of ways, to changes in the professional direction of social work. From what we are able to discern so far, some of these changes are potentially damaging for a profession whose roots lie in the support for and empowerment of the most vulnerable, and a commitment to radical social change. While Covid-19 dominates the social and political agenda we should not forget that there are others injured in the conflict of day to day life who require the continued opportunity to have their voices amplified. The challenge for social workers lies in our continued ability to support all of those voices during a time of calm as well as conflict.

David McKendrick (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Jo Finch (University of East London)

 david.mckendrick@gcu.ac.uk and J.finch@uel.ac.uk 

References

Finch, J. and McKendrick, D. (2019) Securitising Social Work: Counter Terrorism, Extremism and Radicalisation in Webb, S. (ed) Routledge Handbook of Critical Social Work, Routledge, London

McKendrick. D. and Finch, J. (2020) Pressure Drop: Securitising and De-Securitising Safeguarding,  Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work,   Vol 32 (1) pp:61-72           

McKendrick, D. and Finch, J. (2019) PREVENT, safeguarding and The Common-Sensing of Social Work in the UK, Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, Vol 31(2), 000–000.

McKendrick, D. and Finch, J. (2017) Downpressor man: securitsation, safeguarding and social work, Critical and Radical Social Work,  Vol 5 (3) pp287-300 doi.org/10.1332/204986017X15029697482460

McKendrick, D. and Finch, J. (2016) “Under Heavy Manners: Social Work, Radicalisation, Troubled Families and Non-linear War, British Journal of Social Work.  47 (2): 308-324.

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 David Orr

Social work in pandemic

On 24 March 2020, everything changed. For anyone paying even passing attention to media reports the weekend immediately preceding “lock down”, it was evident that COVID-19 was not simply going to pass Scotland by and save it from the fate of Italy or Spain. With the sun out and parks and beaches thronged in the days prior to Boris Johnson’s decision to impose significant restrictions to our freedoms of movement and assembly, it was only a matter of time before the “herd immunity” strategy was shelved in favour of a strategy more focussed on the maintenance of human life. One day we were all still turning up for work and trying to put in as normal a day’s work as possible, the next we were confined to our homes with no realistic indication as to when things might return to “normal” unless classified as an “essential worker”.

As a Team Leader in Edinburgh’s Young People’s Service (YPS), my day to day work and that of the social workers I supervise is focussed upon engaging with children and young people between the ages of 12 and 18 who are involved in offending behaviour, encouraging them to move towards desistance and to build on their pro-social skills and interests. On the occasions when young people manage to make the transition from offending to desistance, good, relationship-based social work skills deployed by practitioners in our team will more often than not have played some part in oiling the wheels of that desistance journey. It is in face-to-face human interaction between a social worker and a young person that such skills, when used in an authentic and sensitive manner, tend to carry greatest weight. As such, when lock down struck, the first question that sprang to mind was, “How is this actually going to work?” Social work without face-to-face contact in person sounded like a pretty dubious enterprise.

So, now three weeks into this enormous, unplanned social experiment, what have I learned and how has the social work task changed? It should come as little surprise to anyone that one of the books recording significant sales growth since the pandemic outbreak is Naomi Klein’s (2007) seminal work The Shock Doctrine. Written in the days prior to the global financial crisis of 2008, Klein’s searing critique of neo-liberalism compared the methods of The Chicago School (whose adherents were fervent believers in the power of the market, privatisation and de-regulation to propel economic and societal change), with the “shock” methods deployed by those who perpetrate acts of torture (from the application of sadistic humiliation rituals to “waterboarding”). It would be fair to say that the last two weeks in social work have seen something akin to “system, process and practice water-boarding” occur, with the shock of pandemic enforcing change at breakneck speed. However, while the shock has been destabilising, alarming and unsettling at times, I would argue (unlike neo-liberalism and torture) that it may prove to have some upsides in the longer term. It is an age-old social work maxim from crisis intervention theory that in crisis may come opportunity and so it seems that the pandemic may yield some longer-term benefits for both services users and the wider social work profession. How so?

Dragging technology into the 21st century

The aim of the 80-20 campaign launched by the British Association of Social Workers in 2018 was to rebalance the time spent by social workers in direct contact with service users (not enough) with the time spent on the completion of administrative tasks, mainly on computers (too much). If the opposite of “smart” working is “dumb” working, it has felt for a long time in social work that we do far too much of the latter and not enough of the former. While the time spent on administrative tasks relates in part to bureaucracy and the volume of tasks to complete, it also stems from gross inefficiencies stemming from cripplingly slow and outdated IT systems. The last fortnight has shown how analogue systems flounder in a digital age. Who would have thought a corollary of the pandemic would be that we would become familiar with terms such as Virtual Private Network (VPN), “tethering” and cache? We have had little choice. It transpires that sending an entire workforce home and asking them to connect remotely to an already creaking social work information system is a recipe for disaster. We have all fumbled for “workarounds” to avoid the “blue circle of death” and to achieve the dopamine hit of one successfully uploaded case note. If ever the business case for systems to be modernised and updated needed to be made, look no further than the pandemic as a driver for change. Surely there can be no going back after this? Then there is the plethora of alternative means of communication when face-to-face interaction is not possible owing to public health consideration. Anyone who bought a stake in Zoom, Mind of My Own, Skype or Houseparty before this all kicked off will be laughing all the way to the bank. If you had told me in January 2020 that I would attend an Initial Child Protection Case Conference (ICPCC) via Skype for Business with a parent patched into the conference, via an iPhone call merged with another external attendee, I would have assumed you were intoxicated. However, that is exactly what I did in March 2020 and, to my surprise, found the experience remarkably productive and inclusive, a view echoed by the mother of the young people whose circumstances were being reviewed.

The death of hot-desking?

Hot desking. It was all the rage for several years. As ever, we sought to import an idea from the private sector. The days of social workers sitting in fixed seats with pictures of their family (perish the thought), their own favourite Che Guevara mug and the detritus of unfinished casework were to come to an end, we were told. The future is all about being lean and mobile, we were informed. It is all about touch-down desks and rapid transitions, we were led to believe. Never mind the fact that evidence was beginning to mount about the limitations of hot-desking in terms of both worker morale and productivity, as an article in The Financial Times (2019) attested, the small matter of hygiene is another important issue to consider. It turns out that sneezing into telephone receivers, leaving used tissues on desks and fumbling muffin crumbs into a keyboard is not wholly conducive to stemming the spread of a pandemic. Perhaps when the dust settles, we might see a return to a more traditional office environment with roommates, a desk that feels a little more like “home” and fewer outbreaks of colds and flu.

Pausing to evaluate our purpose

I think we all have go-to “lines” that we roll out from time to time because we feel they have resonated in some way with children, young people and their families. On more than a handful of occasions I have highlighted to a doubtful family that we have no desire to be intervening in their lives, that certain circumstances have made such intervention unavoidable and that our aspiration is to be out of their lives as soon as it is safe and defensible to withdraw. Moreover, we have all debated at different times whether our intense involvement with a particular child or young person may be stymieing their independence, promoting “learned helplessness” or (unconsciously) meeting our own needs. The nature of COVID-19 is that it has essentially pulled the shutters down on contact between social workers and service users with the exception of “life and limb” necessity. It is early days, but to date, in the world of youth offending we have not observed a huge increase in urgent calls for assistance. The worry is that risks and needs have become less visible and when we return to the standard fare of home visits and multi-agency meetings, the backlog will overwhelm us. Alternatively, it may just be that we have underestimated the coping abilities and resilience of those we support. While there is a risk of “minimum intervention” being taken to an extreme, there are also risk associated with undue interference and “over-servicing”.

If we are not focussed on tackling poverty, what is the point?

Of the children and young people who have required the greatest support in these initial weeks,, it has been those who are most profoundly affected by social disadvantage and exclusion. One of the more uplifting aspects of the COVID-19 response in Edinburgh has been the focus on prioritising the needs of those living in poverty. Fortunately, we live in a country in which more than lip service is paid to tackling social injustice, safety nets are robust and indeed in a city which has established its own Poverty Commission to accelerate the drive to greater equality. So it is that food parcels and vouchers have been distributed to those struggling to make ends meet, instant payments via Paypoint (sending money in the form of a code to a mobile phone which can then be activated at a range of locations across the city) have been set up where before transactions involved cumbersome paper-based processes and nursery and early years places have been earmarked for children on the Child Protection Register or subject to statutory legal orders. Such an approach seems wholly consistent with a social work value base.

In summary, these are merely initial reflections based primarily on anecdote. These are my own views as opposed to those of the organisation I work for and in another few  weeks my thinking may well have shifted. Fingers crossed we’ll be out by summer! 

David Orr, Social Worker – All views expressed are the author’s own

Reference

Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine, Penguin: London.

Categories
2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Autumn Roesch-Marsh

Digital exclusion and care leavers: It’s time for social work to join this fight

Many social workers will be well aware of the work of the British Association of Social Work in developing The Anti-Poverty Guide for Social Work, which was published in 2019.  Although social workers, activists and academics have been writing about poverty and its impact on the people and communities served by social work since the inception of the profession (Pierson, 2011), this recent work to re-centre poverty as a key concern in social work is important, if perhaps overdue (Boone et al., 2018).  The guide includes some discussion of key theories of poverty, the findings of their extensive consultations with members on the topic of poverty and how it impacts on their work, and ‘proposes practical, skills-based approaches that can assist social workers in their work with people experiencing poverty’ (BASW 2019:5).  It is strange, therefore, that the issue of the digital divide and digital exclusion are not once mentioned in this document.  In this brief piece I will explore the importance of these issue for social work, and particularly for those working with care leavers in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

There is growing recognition of the significance of the ‘digital divide’ in UK society, with digital exclusion and digital inequality being seen as key factors for mental health and wellbeing.  For these reasons ‘digital participation’ is increasingly seen as way of ‘contributing to a number of major public policy goals’ (White 2016:12).  Although bridging the digital divide was initially about improving access to the internet and different types of technology, authors are increasingly talking about a wider agenda to overcome digital inequality which includes ‘addressing disparities in skills, usage and engagement’ (Humphry 2019: 3).  Digital inequalities are also recognised as ‘complex and multifaceted, structured by pre-existing social, economic and geographic inequalities’ (Humphry 2019: 2). 

Despite this powerful connection between digital inclusion and health and wellbeing, very few social work academics have written about this problem as a social work problem (Steyaert and Gould, 2009).  Steyaert and Gould (2009) argue that this might be because of some inherent pessimism about technology in social work, and, in some places, an assumption that the technological undermines the relational. Those who have turned their attention to the particular needs of those with care experience and online environments have also identified how risk discourses tend to shape practitioner approaches, with a focus on online safety and preventing exploitation predominating and very little discussion about digital rights and digital inclusion (Hammond et al. 2018).  

As a social worker and social work academic I am embarrassed to admit that these issues have not been on my radar either, until fairly recently.  I have been undertaking some research about care leaver mental health and social media, funded through the ESRC eNurture fund.  So far we have spoken to ten young people in detail about their experiences of using social media and its impact on mental health.  We have also conducted three focus groups, two with residential care officers and one with through care workers.  We were hoping to conduct further focus groups with foster carers until COVID-19 interrupted plans.  We still hope to get the views of some foster carers using an online survey.  

This work is ongoing but there are already a number of emerging insights.  The first is around the importance of digital access within the care system and for those transitioning out of the care system.  Workers and young people largely agree that it is far too difficult for young people to access the internet because of poor IT infrastructure, risk averse cultures and cost.  For the young people we spoke to, being able to connect to friends, partners or family virtually through social media and free messaging apps was seen as an essential or core need.  Our personal network mapping with young people has also confirmed findings reported elsewhere, many care leavers live alone and have less contact with family then other young people their age (Hiles et al., 2013), making virtual connections and networks even more important for some care experienced people.  Throughcare workers spoke about their concerns that care leavers often spend money they didn’t have or forgo other needs, such as food, to make sure they have a phone that allows them to make and maintain online or digital connections.  Both residential workers and throughcare workers spoke about young people riding buses late into the night or hanging around MacDonald’s or other venues just to access free WiFi because it was unavailable or restricted during certain hours within residential units or hostels, a finding supported by other research (Anderson and Swanton, 2018).  

These findings were emerging before COVID-19 shut down libraries, restaurants and other free sources of WiFi.  Since lockdown I have spoken to a number of charities in Scotland who support care leavers, I am hearing about the huge challenges some care leavers are facing to connect virtually during this crisis.  Which, more than ever, is the only way to connect with those outside of our households.  First, care leavers may lack the equipment to connect. As one worker I spoke to explained, ‘our young people are living without the basics, so getting and keeping a phone is difficult, they may need to pawn it until they get their next benefit payment.’  Many don’t have computers or struggle to make payments to keep equipment and WiFi access if they are living on their own.  As a manager from an arts based charity explained, ‘we are trying to re-purpose and upcycle any tech we can get our hands on, so that we can give this to the young people we work with.’  

Emerging findings from this study also suggest that young people need support to make the most of digital environments and often value opportunities to connect with social workers and other supportive professionals using digital tools like messaging apps and social media.  As some research on mental health has shown, underlying issues with communicating and managing emotions and difficult situations can impact on the way young people use social media and the impact it may have on their mental health (Best et al., 2014).  In essence, those who face exclusion, exploitation and relationship difficulties offline are more likely to experience similar challenges and risks online.  Emerging findings from this study suggest that social workers and others are most helpful when they are curious and respectful about young people’s use of social media, engaging with conversations that help young people think about the impact of their use of these platforms on their wellbeing.  During this crisis support workers and social workers are increasingly using online platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp groups to keep in regular contact with care leavers and to encourage peer support.  Worries about boundaries seem less important when there is a need to ensure connection with young people who are isolated and whose mental health may be at risk.  

Writing before the crisis, Ryan and Garrett (2018) suggest social work needs be less reactive to technology in-order-to understand the risks and opportunities presented by the professional ‘techno-habitat’.  Ethical principles around respect for persons and promoting safety and dignity have perhaps pushed social workers towards a greater engagement with these issues in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.  This may be a positive thing to emerge from such a dark time for all of us.  Social work as a profession and academic discipline needs to bring issues of digital inequality and digital rights into the wider discussions about poverty and social justice.  As this crisis has highlighted, without technology, internet access and the skills to make use of what the internet has to offer, care leavers are at risk of further exclusion and marginalisation.  

Joining the fight

If these are issues that interest you and you would like to find out more, share your own work on this topic or get involved in work to bridge the digital divide and foster digital justice then there are a few things you might be interested in:

  • I am on Twitter and will continue to raise these issues in this forum.  Make suggestions and join the discussion by following me @DrARoeschMarsh, use the hashtag #digitalinequality to help us connect our experiences and share suggestions. 
  • Coram Voice in England are reporting widely on these issues.  Follow them for updates @CoramVoice. 
  • The Department for Education in England announced on the 19th of April that they will provide computers and 4G routers to disadvantaged children across the country, prioritising care leavers who have an assigned social worker. More detail should emerge soon.
  • In Scotland the charity Scotlandis is working hard to get technology out to those who don’t have it.  To find out more go to: https://www.scotlandis.com/blog/no-one-left-behind-digital-scotland-covid-19-emergency/
  • In Scotland the SCVO’s digital team will be launching a call for volunteers over the next few weeks as part of a national coordinated response to get vulnerable, digitally-excluded people online. (More information is here – https://scvo.org/p/36175/2020/03/19/no-one-left-behind-digital-scotland-covid-19.) 
  • The Articulate Trust are developing creative online opportunities for care leavers to keep busy making and sharing artistic outputs.  Check them out at:  www.articulatehub.com
  • The Who Cares? Trust in Scotland have been getting technology out to isolated care leavers in Scotland.  Follow them for updates @whocaresscot 

If you are aware of other resources in your area or other initiatives to bridge the digital divide for care leavers or other vulnerable groups please let me know, I will continue to work on these issue and hope to develop some further research related to this topic.

Please get in touch with me if you would like the references for this article.  

This project has been funded by the Nurture Network (eNurture).  eNurture is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and their support is gratefully acknowledged (Grant reference: ES/S004467/1). Any views expressed here are those of the project investigators and do not necessarily represent the views of eNurture or UKRI.

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Edinburgh

a.roeschmarsh@ed.ac.uk

Twitter: @DrARoeschMarsh