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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Leigh Zywek, Elliot Davis and Richard Devine

Child protection practice in an evolving era

Introduction –  an evolving context

Covid-19 constitutes a global pandemic of unprecedented proportion. The reverberations of such substantial disruption caused by the virus will be felt for years to come. A tremendous amount of humility is required in formulating the consequences and possibilities that may emerge out of this crisis. Perhaps, even if undertaken sensitively, it could be argued that it is premature to be deliberating over the implications of this for children’s social care. In response to this concern we draw upon Nora Bateson, who in her eclectic book Small Arcs of Larger Circles(2016: 41) writes:  

‘Loose and strict, chaos and order, knowledge lies in the paradox of these polarities, and the paradox should not be solved. The knowing is only possible in the aesthetic of uncertainty which will inform not just only our findings, but the process of the searching. No cut pieces, no quick solutions – complexity demands a more engaged enquiry to the patterns that connect’ 

The chaos imposed upon our current ordered systems arguably represents a dramatic shift from opposite polarities; the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 provides us with, at the very least, an opportunity to consider new ways of understanding. We have witnessed changes on a systemic level that previously appeared unfeasible; this provides an extraordinary window into unimagined possibilities. The government has been able to galvanize thousands of people to volunteer for the health and social care sector; the welfare system has immediately removed some of the most punitive and degrading elements to accommodate an increase in applications for financial support; homelessness, often presented by those in power as an intractable problem, has been addressed at an expediency never seen before; we’ve even witnessed weekly national rounds of applause for workers in our beloved NHS. 

A response to Covid-19

In our own organization, at Bath and North East Somerset Council children’s social care, we have undergone radical and systematic organizational change within a fortnight, as we adapt our services to concentrate on helping those who need help and protecting those who absolutely need protecting. The arrival of COVID-19 has undoubtedly upended almost all our previous ways of working with families. We have created new systems almost from scratch, albeit with the benefit of a workforce that has adapted phenomenally quickly, and responded with enthusiasm, energy and care. 

The challenges inherent in this are significant, but the opportunities for new dynamics and ways of doing things remain and the shift in the balance of power and the use of ‘authority’ needs to continue to inform the way in which support is provided. One of the crucial issues that will need to remain at the fore of our minds at this point is how we maintain the social work value-base, where the ‘care vs control‘ debate inherent in statutory practice has never been clearer. We have a virus that is entirely indiscriminate in who it infects, but the choices as to how we respond to this are more important than ever. There are many live debates to be had about whose work society deems essential, how we structure our services so those most vulnerable can get medicine and food, whether social work services put pressure on families to send their children in to school alongside the children of ‘keyworkers’ because ‘we‘ determine the children are ‘safer’ there, or the medical ethical decisions as to who might be front of the queue to receive life-saving interventions, e.g. consider the ‘Do Not Resuscitate‘ forms that some older, disabled, marginalized groups are being encouraged to complete as society’s prejudices about whose life is most worthy leak through, and of course how the use of language informs and shapes these discussions. 

However, in the midst of these ethical complexities new forms of relating emerge.  Recently, a father whose children have been removed into care, sent a note to the child’s social worker, which began ‘it might be strange coming from me but…‘ and then went on to express his gratitude to the worker and their team, saying that, at a time when everyone is showing their thanks to the NHS and emergency services, he wanted to thank them for all the work they do. He proceeded to say ‘your sector gets a bad rap’, and that although he was the last person they would expect to hear it from, he wanted to pass a message  to thank every team for their hard work and dedication ‘in this difficult time, as you all deserve the thanks and appreciation you‘re seldom shown’. As an example of a potential shift in relationship and power dynamics, this is powerful. As a way to show our shared humanity, a virus that has the potential to attack all,  regardless of class, background, wealth or employment role, strips away our differences and exposed our commonality. With that said, it is becoming more apparent that responses to the virus leave some groups considerably more exposed to risk and there are the multiple challenges with the intersectionality of disability, poverty, trauma, race, homelessness etc. For instance, debates that continue over who is getting tested expose the responses that might be seen to discriminate, as does the make-up of those who are forced to continue to work on the front-line beyond NHS staff, such as cleaners, supermarket workers and those in insecure employment, minimum wage jobs, including a disproportionate number of BAME workers. Nevertheless, the advantages of different paradigms of connection for future collaboration and development, are there for us if we choose to see them, strengthening some of the approaches we and others have been trying to build before now, whilst exploring with care which of our old ways of working should change. 

Building bridges

Covid-19 has demonstrated that successful, collaborative and collective action requires a redistribution of power, greater access to resources to those who need it and leadership. We see what is possible and perhaps we can see with greater clarity aspects of our way of working that more readily resonates with these ideas. 

An example, that has been inspired by the work of Featherstone and her colleagues in Protecting children: A social model (2018), David Tobis’ From Pariah to Partners (2013), Annie from Surviving Safeguarding, Re-Frame and our colleagues (/friends) from Camden, is ‘parental advocacy’. The individuals we are forming alliances with are parents who have had experience of social care involvement, either as a child or as a parent. They decided to name the group ‘Building Bridges’. We think their self-generated title tells you a great deal about their integrity and intention. As pointed out by Crittenden (2016: 152), ‘being a bridge means linking two realities by having one foot on each side of what seems like a chasm of difference’. At a recent service-wide conference, we held at Bath and North East Somerset Council, the Building Bridges members stood up in a room full of social workers and family support workers. They articulated their desire to form a different type of relationship than that which many of them had experienced themselves and they put forward their intention to re-present the meaning of children’s services so families may be more inclined to ask for help; ultimately their ambition is to figuratively and literally ‘build bridges’.

If we are to disentangle ourselves and services from the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative that is pervasive within our systems, then we need greater democracy. Our Building Bridges group were telling us what Covid-19 has unambiguously illustrated in recent weeks; we are all in this together! Not only is parental advocacy an ethical and moral endeavour, but it has potential to yield ‘transformative approaches that function at the levels of practice, service design and policy’ (Featherstone et al, 2018: 163).  

Conclusion

Much of the recent change highlights the flexibility within systems when demand necessitates such change and starkly illustrates the relationally interconnectedness of our world. It also highlights that at any point, any one of us could need support from wider society (the state), if the circumstances radically altered our position in life, as Covid-19 has done for many people. We are all vulnerable under certain conditions. Covid-19 represents for many people what other life experiences represent for others; that is, a force outside of individual control that imposes a set of restrictive and debilitating conditions on their ability to be productive, economically, relationally and socially, in the world.

Leadership will be essential during this period. However, we don’t think leadership in the conventional sense is required, rather the type of leadership proposed by Bateson (2016: 87), ‘Leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual…meeting unknown circumstances requires rapid and spontaneous learning. In the case of today’s leadership needs, that learning is mutual’. Bateson suggests ‘Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong…willing to learn, explore new ideas, go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories’ (2016: 84). What the possibilities are going forward, and what the potential impact of COVID-19 longer term on our society and structures will be, no one yet knows for sure, but if we can build alliances, collaborate and maintain our value base in a world where we are having to mobilize and react at extraordinary speed in incredible fashions, there are great opportunities. 

Leigh Zywek, Service Leader for Safeguarding, Elliot Davis, Principal Social Worker and Richard Devine, Social Worker

Reference

Crittenden, P.M. (2016) Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation and Treatment, (2nd ed.) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.