Oldham social worker on the ‘forgotten frontline’ keeping children safe in lockdown

Reporter: Charlotte Green, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 09 March 2021

A social worker has spoken out about life on the ‘forgotten frontline’ and the battle to keep children safe as the coronavirus pandemic piles pressure on families.

Chloe*, who works in Oldham’s children’s services department, has revealed that serious incidents of physical domestic violence have increased to a ‘worrying level’ under lockdown.

The NSPCC says that concerns about child abuse have soared since national lockdown measures were first introduced.

Social workers are seeing children with fractures, broken bones, bruises, and suffering emotional harm while living in a violent or verbally abusive household.

Oldham’s executive director of children services has previously revealed the authority had experienced a ‘tsunami’ of referrals since July last year, with reports of ‘really serious domestic abuse’.

“Unfortunately some of the incidents where it’s been a verbal argument has escalated into more physical things and sadly children have been witness to that,” Chloe says.

“We’ve also seen a number of injuries, and not just a bruise which is bad but we’ve actually seen an increase in the severity, so we’ve seen a number of fractures for children where we’ve had to investigate what’s gone on there.

“Although it might not become physically violent at any point, if there are children living in a situation where parents are continually arguing and people are distressed then that’s potentially emotionally harming that child.

“They’re growing up and living in a life of shouting and intimidation and potentially fear.”

Children not being in school is a major concern for social services, as teachers would normally flag welfare concerns if they saw a child had been injured, lost weight, or seemed to be struggling.

With most young people stuck at home during the three full lockdowns, social services have been blind to what’s happening behind closed doors, often until emergency services become involved.

“I think that’s why we’ve seen higher amounts of more serious cases, so more serious domestic incidents or more serious injuries or the more serious exploitation is because you haven’t had that lower level checking in with a teacher,” Chloe says.

“It does mean potentially we don’t find out about it until potentially something more extreme has happened.

“The situation with lockdown has put pressure on people where that pressure wasn’t there before. Families are in and out of each other’s pockets because there is nowhere else to go.

“Financial pressures are certainly hitting the people of Oldham. I also think where families were maybe coping before, Covid has meant they haven’t.

“So whether that be in relationships between people, and domestic incidents boil down to a breakdown in that relationship.

“It’s massively contributed to making it harder for families to cope.”

They are also concerned about exploitation and cyber bullying occurring online, with children and young people being targeted as they spend more time at home on the internet.

Chloe explains they have seen a rise in both criminal or sexual exploitation, and that has also increased demand for children’s services and the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH).

The hub is Oldham’s first point of contact for safeguarding referrals to protect children, young people or adults from harm, abuse or neglect.

For social workers, the onset of the pandemic brought its own challenges but the day-to-day job of staff didn’t fundamentally change, even as Prime Minister Boris Johnson instructed people to stay at home.

To protect children they had to keep going out and visiting families, despite fears of their own about the risks of Covid-19.

Without continuing to knock on doors and be a physical presence in families’ lives, there was no guarantee that young people could be kept safe during lockdown.

But for social workers like Chloe, it meant they were a ‘forgotten frontline’ during a year where the focus has been firmly on the NHS and care sectors.

“It does feel like social workers have been forgotten,” she says.

“That was quite hard, it was very intense making sure you could get out there and see everybody on your caseload and far more regularly than maybe we did when they were seen by a school teacher or things like that.

“We need to make sure that it’s us because there isn’t anybody else.

“We have our own fears and anxieties around Covid and we had to kind of shelve those and get on.

“There are social workers who have had Covid, there are social workers who have lost loved ones through Covid and they are back in work and still visiting families and still trying to keep children safe.”

And for some families reluctant to engage with social services, the pandemic offered an easy way to refuse entry to social workers.

Chloe says that there have been occasions where families will say a member has become infected with Covid-19 to stop a social worker coming into their house.

Whenever a member of staff enters a home they do so in full personal protective equipment, including gloves, apron, mask and visor.

Being told ‘no’ at the door isn’t the end of their job, Chloe explains, as social work is rooted in perseverance – and you need a ‘thick skin’.

“We go back and keep trying, that’s part of being a social worker being persistent and having challenging conversations is sadly a big part of our job and trying to get families on board with us about where we’re coming from,” she says.

“Most families at their heart care about their children. They might not have the skills that they need and that’s where we come in and skill them up and try to give them their strategies.”

But ultimately if they have serious concerns and are being refused entry, social workers will call upon the help of the police for assistance.

Chloe understands that their work to keep children safe can lead to families resenting them, and that can make staff feel ‘vulnerable’.

“We will encourage families to protect their children but if there’s a point where they’re not then the local authority will take steps,” she adds.

“During those times that’s hard for families and they’ll say things and do things that they will maybe regret later and we certainly don’t like.

“But the reality is no social worker has gone into children’s social services to separate families, it’s the exact opposite, we really want to keep families together.

“That’s the goal – that we actually do ourselves out of a job with families and make it so they can cope on their own.

“Unfortunately that’s not the story that families think about social workers.

“We certainly don’t get these bonuses that people talk about. I have had that thrown at me, that I only want to take these children into care because I’m going to get a bonus and a new car.

“It’s not what social workers want to do – that bit of the job is the bit we dislike.

“We like working with families to keep them together and make positive change for children and young people. Taking them into care is absolutely the last resort.”

While families have been more isolated during the pandemic, there is more responsibility on those close by, such as neighbours, to raise concerns if they feel a situation is deteriorating.

The NSPCC saw more than 31,000 contacts from adults anxious about child abuse or neglect between April and December last year.

Chloe explains that people who have worries can contact their MASH team through the council, or ring a national helpline through charities like the NSPCC.

In her eyes, being seen as a ‘nosy neighbour’ is a small price to pay to stop something more serious from occurring.

“Safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility and as a society we have a duty to look out for children and young people,” she adds.

“That is just making us aware that there is potentially something to worry about. If we don’t know about it then we can’t help.

“We do try to be sensitive with where information has come from.

“If you refer it in then social care can investigate and they can offer help, we could prevent it reaching an escalation point where maybe violence does occur

“But if you don’t and it continues on and something terrible happens that’s a decision that you as an individual also have to be able to live with, that you had those worries but you didn’t act on them.”

People can contact the MASH service on 0161 770 7777, or email child.mash@oldham.gov.uk or adult.mash@oldham.gov.uk. Referrals can also be made online.

If you suspect a person is at immediate risk of harm call 999 and speak to the police.

*Names have been changed