As we discussed in previous blogs (see here and here for previous blogs), we have been working with the Early Intervention Foundation to help the Department for Education build a picture of how local authorities have made changes to practice in response to COVID-19, and to understand how to embed these adaptations in the future.
We were particularly interested in the changes made to multi-agency arrangements. We explored this through focus groups with service managers, assistant directors and principal social workers from 17 local authorities.
Our discussions suggest that there was an increase in communication between teams, that data infrastructure and processes were changed to share information more easily and there was a focus on offering more practical support. Good existing relationships appear to be the key to successfully adapting multi-agency working. While these changes were prompted by mutual concern for children and families, their implementation was challenging in some local authorities during the initial lockdown because multi-agency partners were withdrawing much of their face-to-face support. The practitioners we spoke with also emphasised that the flexibility of virtual meetings improved attendance, which in turn improved relationships and better information sharing.
We dug a little deeper into adaptations made to practice at three local authorities during COVID-19 and what it meant for practice going forward.
At Kirklees, they reviewed their approach to child protection conferences to facilitate their transition to virtual conferences. Participants in the focus groups reflected that the virtual version of the conference was more convenient in many ways for professionals and parents, for example, in allowing new / vulnerable mothers to participate fully in meetings from home. Professionals were starting to develop the virtual version of the informal glue, which can make or break a conference, for example, texting or ringing the parent separately to have an informal conversation to encourage them to re-join the conference after a break. Participants recognised the need to embed the virtual version in existing processes, for example, making sure that they have the right contact information to invite parents to a virtual conference. Looking forward, participants were excited about having an offer to parents and children with more flexibility that could be tailored carefully. This ranges from a fully virtual conference, to a hybrid meeting (with a parent being supported in the room by a trusted professional while other participants attend virtually), to holding a full in-person conference.
At Sandwell, they set up a vulnerable children’s group, which brought together practitioners from across different services. Initially the group met three times a week to discuss themes of vulnerability across Sandwell and what support they could offer. The practitioners we spoke to reflected on how to define vulnerability and the ways in which the definition affected how children and young people would be identified and what support could be provided. Practitioners were proud of the sheer quantity and diversity of work going on in Sandwell, and appreciated the need for better coordination and communication between teams and services, which the group aimed to fulfil. The practitioners we spoke with reiterated that the new COVID-19 innovations needed to be embedded into practice along with a review of current ways of working, to ensure that there was no duplication of groups.
At Middlesbrough, they instituted two related changes to engagement with Middlesbrough’s Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARAC) – a fortnightly information sharing and action planning meeting for victims of domestic abuse, held between local police, probation, health, children’s services and other specialists. Firstly, they shifted to a policy where assistant team managers within Middlesbrough’s Multi Agency Children’s Hub were required to attend all virtual MARAC meetings in full (where previously, case workers would only feed into discussions related to families on their caseload). The practitioners felt that this improved the timeliness of information sharing and action by all partners. More generally, those we spoke to felt this closer way of working sustainably galvanised multi-agency partnerships in Middlesbrough, which will persist in the future. Secondly, Middlesbrough conducted a review of CSC cases (both open and closed) that had been heard at MARAC. The purpose was to re-assess the risks of domestic abuse, and revise safety plans and the frequency of visits and direct work. Practitioners felt this helped services better identify families where domestic abuse is a key issue, and ensured that children were better protected in the face of potentially higher risks brought about by the pandemic and lockdown. The practitioners we spoke with also valued that the review enabled assessment teams to reflect on decision-making in previous cases of domestic abuse, and apply learnings to future risk assessments.
While the radical changes to how we live and work were undoubtedly challenging, this project, along with our special COVID-19 podcasts, revealed an emphasis on, and innovation within, multi-agency working. Overall, the silver lining was that the pandemic had prompted reflection on the possibility of diversifying ways of working to better meet the needs of children and families, which can only be a good thing!