COVID-19 and subsequent requirements for social distancing, and regulations around travel and staff absences, have brought fresh challenges to those working in children’s social care.
The Government has published Guidance for Children Social Care Services and has passed the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.
The Regulations offer some flexibility, for example, around the timescales for visits to looked after children, statutory reviews for looked after children and the time limits on temporary foster placements.
However, the Guidance makes it clear that local authorities’ duties to children set out in the Children’s Act 1989 all still apply in the usual way. For example, the duty owed to children in their care (s.22) the duty owed to children in need (s.17) and the duty to investigate (s.47).
The Guidance acknowledges that it may be necessary to make changes to the way in which social care teams and other agencies work to protect children.
If there are any changes in the way they work, there is an expectation that councils and their social care teams revise risk assessments. Those risk assessments are expected to balance the risk to children, families and the work force, with the child’s welfare the paramount consideration.
Examples of different ways of working may include:
- In some cases, visits may not be carried out in person or at the family home. Other methods of communication, such as telephone or video calls may be used.
- Other agencies and professionals working with families may deliver their services remotely, instead of visiting the family home.
- Where face to face visits take place, social care staff may be required to wear PPE.
- Administrative tasks may be carried out at home and via remote working.
- Child protection conferences and other multi-agency meetings may take place remotely rather than face-to-face.
Where there are changes there are always new risks to consider. Some practical steps councils may consider to best manage risks include:
- It is expected that an overarching approach to the use of the flexibilities given in the Regulations will be approved at chief officer level. Keep a copy of that policy (and all amended versions) and any associated guidance.
- Keep in contact with neighbouring councils to share ways of working and best practice.
- Ensure social care teams have assessed each child. Note any changes to the way the child’s placement is reviewed on the child’s file, together with an explanation why the changes are considered appropriate and sufficient. This is to manage any safeguarding risk.
- Make a contingency plan if the new (remote and virtual) communication methods are not working.
- If there are delays in visiting a family or child, ensure a note is made of the reasons for the delay and how the social care team have satisfied themselves of the child’s welfare in the meantime.
- The guidance does not require PPE to be worn in every home visit. It would be sensible to have a risk assessment showing the risk to both staff and visited families has been considered by the council. Keep a copy of the risk assessment.
- Ensure that where administrative duties are carried out at home, staff members are aware of their responsibilities under GDPR generally and in accordance with internal policies. This could include instructions on safe file storage, steps to be taken when transporting documents, and ensuring conversations are not overheard for example.
- Where child protection conferences or other multi-agency meetings take place by video conferencing, ensure all participants are aware of their GDPR responsibilities. Don’t forget, not all participants will be professionals. Make sure the meeting cannot be overheard and is not being recorded without permission. The video conferencing software should be secure. Many platforms allow access to meetings by password only, which will avoid inadvertent sharing of confidential data.
The changes introduced by the Regulations have proved controversial. Indeed, on 5 June 2020 the children’s rights charity, Article 39, applied for a judicial review of the legislation. Permission for the judicial review has been given and the hearing takes place on 27 and 28 July 2020.
Hannah Parry, Solicitor (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Peter Wake, Partner (email@example.com), Weightmans.