COVID-19 has forced an abrupt change in practice for child protection conferences.
A new survey suggests that the majority of formerly face-to-face meetings are now being held remotely by video or phone – and now that the shift has been made, professionals feel that in-person conferences are unlikely to resume even beyond the pandemic.
The conferences are a crucial first stage of the child protection system in England and Wales, where professionals come together to identify and address serious concerns about a child who they believe is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm through abuse or neglect. Video, phone, or ‘hybrid’ conferences have now become commonplace, and there were even some reports of conferences being replaced with a series of bilateral telephone conversations without the opportunity for families and professionals to discuss concerns together at all.
The new survey and follow-up interviews with more than 500 professionals and parents published by Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and carried out by King’s College London, shows a disconnect between the experiences of professionals (social workers, police, teachers, GPs and other health professionals) involved and those of parents and families. While nearly half of professionals thought remote child protection conferences were better, all the parents interviewed said they would have preferred a face-to-face meeting if one had been possible.
Professionals also raised concerns on behalf of parents and families. At the most extreme, respondents felt that in some circumstances the new ways of working may be unsafe. Where domestic abuse was an issue there were concerns that someone could be in the room who could become a danger to a parent as a result of what he or she heard. There were also worries that children in the home while conferences were taking place could be exposed to information that they should not hear.
Most of the parents who took part in the study said they had joined by phone even when professionals joined by video. Three quarters of parents thought that the way the conference had been conducted had adversely affected their ability to contribute. While just over half felt that they had been able to express their views and comment on what was being said even if it was difficult to do so, the rest believed they had been denied that opportunity or were not able to comment.
Professionals worried about parents not always being able to understand what was happening and not being prepared or supported to engage fully – particular issues were identified for parents with learning difficulties and language or communication needs. They also recognised problems with technology, confidentiality and safety, as well as a loss of a sense of seriousness, with what is a gravely important meeting.
However, despite these worries, nearly half of professionals thought that a virtual model for conferences was better than being in the same room. One of the significant advantages identified was increased attendance by a range of professionals – a historic challenge for certain professions who cannot easily travel and take time away from day-to-day work. Almost half of the professionals interviewed said they had noticed a change in attendance especially amongst GPs, paediatricians, child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) workers, and psychiatrists working in adult mental health services.
Some professionals also reported better engagement with children, particularly older children, in remote conferences, and also that remote conferences could be less intimidating for parents.
Lisa Harker, director of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said:
“Children’s services have had to operate in immensely challenging circumstances this year due to the pandemic. While the ability to innovate and swiftly adapt practices in response to the changing landscape was crucial, it is vital that decisions about permanent changes to practice are underpinned by solid evidence about what ultimately results in the best outcome for the children and families whose lives are determined by the system.”
Dr Mary Baginsky, senior research fellow at King’s College London, and lead author of the report, said:
“There was a strong sense from the professionals interviewed that elements of the new ways of working are here to stay. Given the concerns raised in this report, there is a need for further research and for local areas to be reviewing their practice, with a particular focus on the experiences of family members and children. The very fact that it is so difficult to find parents able to participate in research illustrates the challenges they face in having their voices and experiences heard and considered.”