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Continuing to deliver Family Safeguarding in challenging times

Strengthening Families Programme Coach Alissa Davies shares insights gathered via an online survey of local authority teams who have previously adopted Hertfordshire County Council’s Family Safeguarding model.

COVID has presented a significant challenge to social work. Practice is changing to address the challenge of keeping children safe and helping families make the changes they need to make, while managing the risk to staff.

Before the pandemic, Hertfordshire County Council’s Family Safeguarding model had already been adopted by five local authorities via the Department for Education funded Innovation Programme and Strengthening Families Protecting Children Programme (SFPC). The Hertfordshire Team are working alongside local teams and with programme partners to support a further five local authorities as part of the SFPC programme to implement the model in their context.

Successful adoption of Family Safeguarding changes the way social workers and other professionals work with children, young people and their families. However, none of these changes were designed to operate within COVID restrictions. 76% of social workers surveyed in May 2020 by Community Care rated the impact of pandemic operating conditions on the work of their service at 6 out of 10 or higher. They reported that relationship-based practice had been undermined by a steep reduction in direct contact with people they support, especially where they had not previously worked with that person. Implementing Family Safeguarding is complex work, made even more challenging by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite these additional challenges local authorities have continued to operate the Family Safeguarding model throughout the initial lockdown and with local restrictions, which continue to evolve over time.

In July, the Strengthening Families coaching team surveyed local authority teams to find out what they have been doing and how they have kept going. Here’s what we found out:

The Use of Digital

Family visits, usually by social workers, have continued; some virtual and some face-to-face. Staff were given extra training and resources to help them make the most of virtual interactions, including learning how to maintain relationships online. They have found new and creative ways of engaging with children and families.

Working virtually has some advantages:

  • Reduced travel time has created more capacity for staff to work with children and families; and
    More assessments are being undertaken in a shorter time frame
  • Some older children are engaging more through virtual means like video calls than they did previously with more traditional methods like visits.
  • New opportunities for staff to share tools and interventions with their colleagues and to learn from each other.

However, aspects of Family Safeguarding have proven more difficult to deliver. For example, some specialist assessments have not been completed due to ethical and logistical challenges. And it has been hard to start new therapeutic interventions, especially where there is no previous relationship with the child and their family. In some cases, families have needed extra time and support to stay engaged, or have not complied with requirements leading to escalation.

Online group work with adults

A key feature of Family Safeguarding is providing support for adults in families to address issues like substance misuse, poor mental health and domestic abuse in a group setting. This has been challenging to deliver with COVID restrictions in place.

Rising levels of domestic abuse, and its impact on children and families, have long been recognised nationally and locally, and the pandemic has only served to make things worse for some families.

In Hertfordshire, a well-established programme of one to one support and group work for victims and survivors of domestic abuse has been adapted to be delivered virtually by an experienced team of domestic abuse professionals, who thought creatively about what needed to change.

For example, while usually up to 15 people join the group programme for 12 weeks, the online group is for a maximum of 8 people over 8 weeks, with two groups running at the same time.

Safety is a big concern for the Hertfordshire team and a full risk assessment is done to check each individual is suitable to participate in the online group, taking into account factors like where they are on the cycle of domestic abuse and who lives in the home.

To date the changes have been received positively, with high levels of interest and commitment in the group sessions.

Other local authorities delivering and adopting Family Safeguarding are thinking carefully about how they can adapt group work with adults on substance misuse, mental health and domestic abuse for online delivery. They are considering a range of issues, for example:

  • Financial and technological barriers to equal access to online sessions
  • Adapting materials and activities so that participants can engage in different ways depending on their needs
  • Identifying when participants need extra support during or beyond virtual sessions to manage loneliness and anxiety

It is clear that COVID will continue to drive changes in social work, at least until a vaccine arrives. We look forward to supporting Hertfordshire and the adopting authorities as they continue to deliver and implement Family Safeguarding, balancing fidelity to the model with meeting their local challenges in the context of COVID.

To read more more about the Strengthening Family programme visit the website here or you can contact alissa@mutualventures.co.uk.

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