The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact upon family life, including how social care services for children and families are being delivered. In Children’s Services at NSPCC, we shifted from working face-to-face to providing exclusively virtual service. This raised questions about how children and families were responding to digital services and how to manage safeguarding risks digitally.

NSPCC recently brought together colleagues from social care, health, education, the youth sector, police, and the third sector to explore best practice in assessing and managing safeguarding risks digitally. The roundtable highlighted new and innovative ways of working together to support families, while drawing out key challenges for the sector.

New opportunities

In response to lockdown requirements and social distancing measures, services have responded and adapted extremely quickly to continue to safeguard families. While face-to-face contact has remained for the most vulnerable families, services across the sector have worked hard to shift to providing support to children and families digitally.

There were many positive outcomes discussed in the move to a more digitised service offer, including being able to offer enhanced support by increasing contacts and child protection measures for vulnerable families who may be faced with additional stresses and pressures during the crisis. For practitioners this was a faster way to engage with young people as it avoids travel times. It has also enabled smaller ‘place-based’ support to be offered on a wider scale, reaching more families than before. Some children and families preferred contacts to happen virtually, and digital contact has engaged seldom heard children and young people and families.

Improved partnership working was a key benefit of the shift towards digital delivery of services, which was felt to be particularly effective in helping to monitor and protect children and young people at this time. Services across the sector were reported to be working well together and were more connected and communicative.

New challenges

Practitioners are faced with significant upheaval to their usual working practices. This is creating challenges and anxieties about how to reach and safeguard young people and families digitally and how to protect their own well-being.

A significant issue was the difficulty of effectively safeguarding and managing risk digitally. In a relationship and contact-based profession, digital technologies were not felt to offer adequate replacement for one-to-one contact as they can only offer a diluted snapshot of family life. Lack of face-to-face visits means that practitioners cannot gather a fuller context for that family, and this can make it more difficult to assess safeguarding risks. Non-verbal cues were also noted to be harder to observe digitally. Concerns were raised about how practitioners can quickly and effectively respond to safeguarding concerns they identify on a virtual call if they are not physically present to address the issue.

Inadequate internet access, digital poverty, or a lack of digital literacy were raised as key challenges to digitally engaging with vulnerable families. Not all families have access to digital technologies and some children share devices with other family members. This creates barriers for children and young people seeking help and is a safeguarding concern. Confidentiality when using a phone or digital technologies was also raised as a significant challenge, especially during lockdown. Positive steps have been taken within social work, further education, the youth sector, and the third sector to provide children and young people with their own digital devices and phone credit to maintain contact with social workers and key workers during this time. It was also difficult to engage with younger children, disabled children, and young people digitally. It is essential to consider the impact of lockdown on these children so their specific needs in accessing support can be identified and implemented.

Some young people are struggling with increased digital demands and are experiencing ‘digital fatigue’. Practitioners also described experiencing digital fatigue with delivering services digitally. This had a negative impact on their own resilience and well-being. Supervision was key to supporting practitioners at this time, but it was noted that this had not been happening regularly in some areas.

Some practitioners were anxious about their own digital competency skills, acknowledging that they were not as confident as they could be using different virtual platforms. There was also some confusion among practitioners about what digital platforms should or should not be used and which ones are not recommended due to safeguarding concerns.

Moving towards recovery  

Digital platforms have offered an invaluable resource for the children’s social care sector in Wales in engaging, supporting, and safeguarding children and families during lockdown. There are lessons and new opportunities to take forward about how digital service delivery integration into the sector can maintain better engagement with families and sustain improved partnership working, long after the crisis has passed.

However, managing safeguarding risks in a digital world is challenging. Consideration needs to be given to how we use digital technologies to engage children and young people in a way that avoids digital fatigue. We also need to think of how to support those not well equipped to access technology or to use different platforms to safeguard families.

To safeguard children effectively, we need to come together as a sector to develop clear practice guidance on digital service delivery. This guidance needs to support practitioners to ensure their work is sustainable, effective, secure, and safe. Practitioners will also need supervision, training, and support to apply this guidance in practice. Only then can some of these challenges be addressed and the sector can be better equipped to safeguard families in a more digital world.

Sarah Witcombe-Hayes provides this report from the recent roundtable of the NSPCC, the UK’s leading children’s charity, preventing abuse and helping those affected to recover.