As a business we feel quite fortunate in the current crisis that we are an essential service delivering to the public sector and are able to continue to operate without disruption, something many businesses have not been able to do. Children in Local Authority Care will continue to need to be looked after by our families throughout this crisis. We have had to ensure that we are able to continue to deliver our service without exposing our staff and foster carers to risk as far as possible. To this end we invested in software and systems ahead of the lockdown and moved all our office-based staff and social workers to be home-based. We trialled this for a couple of weeks to make sure our new way of working was efficient and teething troubles ironed out before the lockdown was brought in.

Our social workers are able to conduct visits to families virtually through the use of Teams, FaceTime or Zoom. They are able to speak with children and make sure they are ok in the same ways. We have also established clear protocols with our carers regarding the circumstances and process should there be a need for any real home visits. Local Authorities are able to contact us in the normal way to request the placements for children that they need. Our office phones use the internet rather than a landline, so we have simply redirected these to our reception and office staff working remotely who respond as if our offices are open. All our systems are internet and cloud based so we can access all our carer assessments, records, and more from anywhere and match children to families just the same as before.

In the evolving circumstances we find ourselves in, we ensure we continue to adhere to Ofsted regulations and requirements. Where we are finding a challenge is in the level of support we are having to deliver as a result of the situation our Local Authority customers find themselves in as a result of Covid-19. Many Local Authority Social Work teams, who are responsible for the children we care for, are running on very reduced numbers, due to staff self-isolating, being moved to a more front line role or falling ill. This has increased the workload for our staff who have increased their support and input to try and ensure children are supported and safeguarded appropriately. We are also using this time to prepare for , and be in a position to respond to, future need once this crisis is over.

It is clear that an extended and enforced period of social isolation and restrictions to movement will put major pressures on families who are dysfunctional and on children living in abusive situations. Once the restrictions are lifted these will become clear and Local Authorities will have to respond to protect and safeguard. We anticipate there will be initially an increased need for services such as ours where there is a need to move a child to a safe family to provide care, support and therapeutic intervention. For us this means we need to recruit and train more carers to deliver to this need. On the one hand we are presented with this as an opportunity. We are finding an increase in enquiries to become foster carers, maybe because people have time to reflect and re-evaluate their lives. Maybe because people have lost their jobs as a result of businesses failing as a result of Covid-19 and see fostering as something they can do to both make a difference and to support their own family. The challenge, however, is how we can do this, respond to the need and assess and train foster carers to the high level we need. Our business is built on establishing and maintaining trust and relationships.

To develop this, we need to meet with and get to know our carers at quite an in-depth level. There is only so much we can do remotely. We can undertake statutory checks, references and so on. We can meet people using video conferencing apps and get to know people to a certain level. We can deliver some training on-line and by video conference. However, we cannot physically check home standards, health and safety, make face to face assessments of people without meeting them, seeing how they welcome us into their homes, seeing how their children may feel about sharing their parents and many other things we consider essential. So for us the real challenge is putting in place plans and systems to retain applicants’ interest and progress enquiries as much as possible, have staff ready to carry out the in depth areas of assessment face to face when it is safe to do so. All this to be in a position to deliver to the need we know is going to be coming our way. This is what we are putting in place at this time.

The content of this article is taken from an interview conducted by The Parliamentary Review with our directors, Nigel Pickering and Graeme Duncombe.