Fears for region's vulnerable as lockdown takes its toll on social workers

Video report by Andy Bonner.

There are growing fears about the safety of vulnerable children and adults in the region as research suggests the pressure of lockdown is putting more at risk - and taking its toll on those who look after them.

Andy Tutte says he is in a privileged position.

As a social worker in one of Merseyside's five metropolitan boroughs, he toils over some of the most serious and complex cases of abuse against children.

Child protection is difficult work but he values being able to help some of the most needy families in the area.

"You don't want to hear what happens to children sadly but I'm also in a privileged position. Where I can, I can try and support and help," he says.

Andy and his colleagues deal with the consequences of sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse on a daily basis. Cases of neglect also feature.

Worryingly, the effects of lockdown are sending case numbers only in one direction and Andy fears some of those who need help simply won't get it.

"I do worry about increases," he told me. "I had six or seven cases. I've now got 19. Now they're only small numbers, I understand that. But if you look at it as a percentage increase it's quite significant."

As an advanced practitioner, Andy usually supervises his newly-qualified colleagues. That has had to stop.

"I'm unable to support the newly-qualifieds because I've got seven cases in court at the moment.  How do we prepare the next generation of social workers? That's a bit of a worry as well."

The spike in demand appears to be a result of the pressures of lockdown. Tensions in some households are understandably high.

The absence of most children from school also seems to have played a part. Without the referrals of watchful teachers, Andy fears hidden harms are storing up.

"They have been locked in the house, effectively. So that puts pressure on people that may struggle to manage emotions, or there's no money.

"We have had a lot of austerity in this area, probably the highest deprivation areas in the country. I do worry about increases [in cases] coming."

It's experience borne out by research from the British Association of Social Workers.

67% of respondents who worked in children's services agreed that they had seen an increase in the number of referrals and/or their caseload since the return to schools and colleges for autumn 2020.

Almost four in five of the social workers said that they had encountered more difficulties in accessing essential support services for the people with whom they worked.

More than three quarters agreed that their experience of working under lockdown restrictions had increased their concerns about the capacity to safeguard/protect adults and children.

The BASW's National Director, Maris Stratulis, told ITV News: "Social workers are reporting higher levels of referrals after each national lockdown. It is absolutely critical that social workers are recognised on par with their colleagues who are also working tirelessly in many of the professions."

With schools due to fully reopen on March 8th, social workers are now braced for more.

"We expect the pattern will be the same as post previous lockdowns, though we do expect there to be an increase in referrals.

"We do expect more contact not just with schools but with other organisations and agencies safeguarding and caring for children."

While social workers have innovated in response to restrictions by bringing many services online, the study also found that the pandemic is taking a heavy toll on its members.

More than two thirds said working from home during the Covid-19 crisis had made it more difficult for them to switch off from work.

Andy meditates and exercises before starting work to prepare him for the day ahead but separating home life is hard. Delicate matters now get discussed in his dining room.

"I'm talking about sensitive issues. My child comes in from school and it's in the backroom. That's extremely difficult.

"In terms of a team setting, we don't have that interaction with each other as much as we did. It's really important when you come back from a visit that maybe has tapped in to your emotions that you can have that reflective discussion.

Andy acknowledges video calls are not ideal and is still conducting home visits. 

However, the sight of a stranger wearing a face mask, shield and gloves isn't great for winning the trust of vulnerable children who are often already scared of men.

Andy says the sight of a stranger wearing a face mask, shield and gloves isn't great for winning the trust of vulnerable children. Credit: ITV

"On an initial visit it was always a challenge as a male social worker, to kind of engage and build up trust really, really quickly. But this creates additional barriers and possibly scares children even more so with a high stressful situation."

The sensitive nature of social work means it is a largely hidden profession.

Those who remain helping some of our most vulnerable people simply want more recognition to help them continue.

"We can often feel like the forgotten relative within the public sector.

"This isn't comparing. We can't do our job without health professionals. They've done an amazing job this year saving peoples' lives. We can't do anything without schools. They've significantly changed how they operate this year.

"We do what we can in the current circumstances. You absolutely use what resource you have available to manage risk to keep children with their parents. It becomes challenging, I think, because of a lack of resource.

"We're not asking for a clap in the streets or a pat on the back, but it would be nice to be recognised.''