In the pandemic’s early days, when motorways became ghost roads as people adapted to new working regimes, one particular workforce faced a dilemma.
How do you operate when your job is to go into Aotearoa’s most vulnerable homes to make sure whānau, especially tamariki, are safe?
Critical workers like police and ambulance officers continued their roles – with adjustments.
But for the country’s social workers, most were told to work from home.
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Awkwardness and glitches on a work video call are tricky enough – what about when you’re talking to a child in state care? Or one who might be in danger?
“There was no guidance – we were writing it as we went,” says Oranga Tamariki’s acting chief social worker, Nicolette Dickson.
Stuff has learned many children in care went months without seeing a social worker face-to-face. Levels of harm to children in care have increased. And pressure on already stretched kaimahi (workers) soared.
More than two years after Covid-19 upended the world, the people who look after children needing care and protection are counting the cost.
“Not being able to check on safety and wellbeing in that really in person, in the home type of way really did remove a key element of the work that many of our providers do,” says Dr Claire Achmad, chief executive of Social Service Providers Aotearoa (SSPA), which represents non-profit organisations.
“I know from speaking with many of our members, there were definitely situations that came up during those lockdown periods where tamariki had become unsafe at home.”
And along the way, social workers have noticed, many whānau dropped off the radar – families who were already in desperate situations before the virus stole so much, and who have become ghosts to the system designed to help them.
“It felt like we were being grounded for doing something bad that has affected everyone. Just like my foster mum tells me, choices have consequences. When we first went into lockdown in my head I was … really worried about what is going to happen to all the kids that live in abuse households. I feel like this is a harder time because those kids are not allowed out of the house and go and find help before it is too late.” – A, 14.
That extract and the others that follow are from essays written by children in care about their experiences during the pandemic. They were submitted for a creative writing competition by advocacy group VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai (an acronym for Voices of the Young and Care Experienced).
VOYCE created the competition as a way for children to express themselves in these extraordinary times – especially when normal forms of communication were failing.
“When our kaimahi are visiting residences regularly, they speak to several young people at each visit – helping them with everyday advocacy issues,” says chief executive Tracie Shipton. “The uptake when they phone in however is very low. It’s difficult to get through, and they’re usually told no-one wants to talk to the kaiwhakamana (advocate).”
Lack of privacy was one of the main reasons believed to put young people off.
Because, it must be hard, right? Imagine being a child who doesn’t feel safe, or feels concerned – how do you raise the alarm without creating further trouble?
These were the sorts of questions weighing on Nicolette Dickson’s mind when she and other leaders from OT wrote guidelines for their staff of about 2000 social workers in April 2020.
“This is a time when tamariki and those who care for them are likely to need more support from us than usual, however it may be more difficult for us to provide,” say the guidelines that were produced at the time.
Even though OT staff were considered essential workers, the decision was made to follow health advice about reducing contacts between households to prevent transmission of Covid-19.
“Therefore, providing support to tamariki in care presents unique challenges, and we need to be creative and innovative in exploring other ways of engaging that is not person to person.”
Dickson says it was about finding a “balance between keeping kaimahi safe, keeping community safe, keeping kids safe”.
“At that point [level 4], we were quite deliberate about saying, ‘Unless there’s a real child safety need, contact should be by other means, virtual means’.”
In-home visits were only allowed with sign-off from a supervisor and manager.
Looking back, Dickson is proud of how staff stepped up, navigating tricky and heart-breaking challenges while juggling their own home lives and, in many cases, children.
“Our social workers were incredibly creative,” she says. “They did a lot of stuff like dropping food off at letter boxes, making sure caregivers and children had devices, so they could stay connected. But it definitely did make it more difficult and there was a real focus as restrictions eased about checking in with those whānau where it had been difficult to maintain contact. It definitely had an impact.”
Dickson says she is not aware of situations where a decision was made to not attend a home and harm to a child then followed. But she believes there may have been situations where children were delayed in being able to get the word out about abuse.
“The most important thing is how we detect and respond to a situation where a child has been harmed. And that most often happens if a child feels able to tell a social worker, or their teacher, for instance, about what’s happening.
“So I couldn’t for certain say that, notwithstanding all the things we did to overcome children being disconnected from their support networks, it may have been that as restrictions eased and those connections rebuilt, children may have shared harm they would have shared earlier. I’m not saying necessarily it led to more harm, but one of the potential impacts might be about when we knew about that harm and responded.”
“The arrival of Covid meant our visits with friends and whānau were stopped. School was cancelled and our daily processes were changed. From now on it was just a 10-minute phone call home each day. It did hurt when some of the staff started to become distant and wouldn’t even shake our hands anymore. We didn’t understand why; all we knew was that we were not infected.” – C, 15.
Claire Achmad has been chief executive of SSPA for 12 months, but before that she worked for one of its 200 member organisations, Barnados, for four years.
“So I was already well-prepared for the lay of the land.”
Still, nothing could have prepared anyone in the sector for the challenges faced these past few years.
“The pandemic has added significant new layers of complexity for families,” she says. “That’s in addition to the challenges that existed pre-pandemic – poverty and income, household resilience, family violence, a mental health crisis, a housing crisis.
“And then also for our community-based social service providers, they were stretched before this pandemic came along, and it really has added a whole other layer of pressure.”
The work social service providers do often relies on relationships, building up trust and rapport.
“That’s why not being able to do that in-home mahi (work) was particularly challenging for many social service providers,” she says.
Especially, she says, when organisations noticed that notifications of concern about things like neglect and abuse dropped off – they knew those things were still happening, people just weren’t able to speak up.
“It really was due to the fact that there was just that lack of in-person connection in those regular spaces where children would normally be connecting with other trusted people in their lives.”
Like OT staff, non-profit organisation social workers found ways to keep in touch with clients. But the country’s digital divide came into sharp focus – when you’re struggling to put food on the table, having a good data package or fibre access doesn’t seem important.
“Often [workers] were able to support [whānau] to pay those bills so that lines of communication could be kept open. But even when that was possible, there were still significant struggles with making that communication work, especially in households, for example, where family violence was present.
“Say they’re talking with Mum: was Mum actually able to speak freely and frankly about what’s going on and being real about the situation?”
“I never see my other Dad and I feel fine about it, because I have another new Dad to protect me from bad people, and corona. My old Dad lives with my Nanny, and if she doesn’t be careful she might get the virus from the hospital she works at and I’m really scared someone might pass it on to her.” – T, 8.
Nicolette Dickson says there’s much we won’t know for some time about the pandemic’s impacts, particularly on harm levels.
“We have been wondering about whether it did increase the potential conditions in which harm might be more likely to occur. But we haven’t been able to make a conclusion about that because the reporting runs behind. We might not ever know that fully.”
But here’s what we do know: in March, OT’s Safety in Care report for 2020-2021 revealed 486 children, babies and teenagers suffered incidents of harm – about 8% of the 5357 under-18 year olds in its care. That’s the worst since reporting started in 2018.
Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers called the figures “sad and distressing”.
Meanwhile, another report, the Independent Children’s Monitor Report, commented on contact between social workers and tamariki.
“In nearly two-thirds of cases, tamariki are not visited as often as outlined in their plan,” says the report, referring to the individual plans OT puts in place for each child.
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Dickson says OT sees things differently, although she adds: “We’re not disputing what the monitor says.”
Under the plans, social workers will set out how often a child should be seen. “That might be two weeks, three weeks, four weeks,” says Dickson.
In the past, there was just a blanket figure – each child should be visited every eight weeks.
If you look at eight weeks as the measure, Dickson says, “our own case file analysis shows … two-thirds of children over that timeframe were seen at least once every eight weeks.”
She later clarifies that “seen” could have been by virtual means, in some circumstances. And nor does she know how long some visits outside the eight-week window were.
“We do not currently capture information on the length of time between visits where those visits are outside either the timeframe set out in the plan or eight weeks.”
“We really miss our home, we feel stranded and heartbroken all the time but we know that we have our staff here to love us and feed us. We have a roof over our head, we’re safe so really you don’t need to worry about us cause we love our staff and they do too. Because the most important thing right now is to look after each other.” – H, 14.
The loss or fragmenting of connection has long-term consequences, agencies say.
Achmad says one organisation which takes part in the Government’s Family Start programme noticed there are far more “unplanned exits” – whānau who are referred to the programme and start, but then drop out. Pre-Covid-19, there were 40-60 families a year who left early.
But in 2020, the number was 132 families, and last year it was 115.
Family Works Northern, part of Presbyterian Support Northern’s social services, has noticed something similar.
“After the first lockdown, a lot of people didn’t want us to visit,” says a spokesperson. “Families didn’t want home visits and that took a lot of coaxing over a number of months for us to get back. It’s fair to say that some never actually got back and despite our best efforts, we had to close some cases because we couldn’t get engagement.”
About 25-35 cases were closed, says the spokesperson. In another 70-odd cases, the families still do not want home visits because they are frightened of virus transmission.
“We need to work with them to build their trust so they know that we are following all the necessary public health measures.
“Our staff have been very creative in the use of technology, including phones and utilising the camera function to ensure they are connecting with the tamariki and whānau they support, but this is not the same as face-to-face visiting, especially for new clients who we have not yet established a relationship with.”
Programmes run through schools were also hit by school closures, and reluctance to return to class.
“At one West Auckland school, parents said that until Covid fully ended, their children would not be going back to school. These are the barriers we’re trying to work through.”
“I feel like lockdown brought us closer together as a family. And even though we got a little annoyed at each other I wouldn’t say lockdown was completely bad, it had its ups and downs, but overall it was okay. For me being in care, living with my aunty and uncle has given me what I always wanted, feeling safe and secure and being a part of this family.” – S, 14
Not all social service providers stayed away from homes. Some, like the Auckland Community Alcohol and Drug Services (CADS), funded by the Waitematā District Health Board, juggled to keep operating throughout the lockdowns.
“Adhering to strict health and safety protocols, CADS staff continued to visit and communicate with vulnerable tamariki and whānau through the Pregnancy and Parental Service (PPS) which provides an intensive outreach service for parents of children under the age of three – as well as pregnant women,” says a DHB spokesperson.
Its other services found innovative ways to continue, too, for example dropping off mobile phones or arranging meetings outside.
“Pre-Covid-19 research indicated that incorporating natural-therapeutic environments allows for deeper and more meaningful interactions. Outdoor appointments have become a successful tool as a direct result of lockdown-readjustments.”
At Oranga Tamariki, some of the new methods will continue too, says Dickson. “We’re all aware now of how it’s easy to pull together a group of people to have a meeting on [Microsoft] Teams, rather than travel to a meeting,” she says. But while that may work for meeting other professionals, it’s not best practice for working with tamariki.
“We definitely wouldn’t want to normalise engagement with children and families being done by technology as a preference.
“Social work is always going to be a relational process which particularly for tamariki and whānau works best when you are sitting in the same spaces.”