Helen Wood, Child Protection Conference Chairperson, Leeds
I have been a chair for conferences (a process to plan and make decisions for a child who is a risk) for over 4 years and have been part of a real move in Leeds for these to be family facing and very much strengths based in approach; to support families by recognising a family’s strengths, and to build on them to reduce the risks. For me, it has always felt important to meet a family face to face - you can read body cues and so much of what we do is based in the subtleties of body language.
Prior to Covid-19 lockdown I would visit families whenever possible before a conference, or at a minimum, engage with them in a telephone conversation. So when we had the call to say, as of the next day, that we would be working from home and there would be no face to face conferences until further notice, it was a scary and anxiety provoking time. I actually had a conference the following day and English wasn’t the family’s first language! However we muddled through the challenges Covid-19 lockdown brought us, and within a day or two we started to have a clearer idea of how to move forward.
Before talking about how we are managing Child Protection conferences in Leeds, I want to recognise that I am in a lucky position of having a spare room where I have been able to set up a workstation, bringing home equipment from the office so I am comfortable. This means I can close the door at the end of the day, separating home life and work life. It is not as easy as this for some of my colleagues who have young children at home, and no spare space to set up a permanent workstation. This is challenging for them, and they have had to make some difficult decisions about sending their children into school or nursery, or try to work around childcare doing later nights and early mornings to complete their work. But, given all those challenges doing virtual child protection conferences has gone much better than any of us could have anticipated!
In Leeds, as well as introducing ourselves before the day of the conference, we have always had 20 minutes with a family before a conference started to ensure they had read reports and understood professionals concerns. We also help them relax by offering a cuppa and a snack, and then checking they have understood how things were going to run. Obviously, this can no longer happen so we now phone families before a virtual conference to ensure they have seen reports, they understand professional concerns, explain the virtual conference process and ensure they will be able to engage in the call if their children are home.
During the Child Protection conferences continue pretty much as they always have. We ensure that all the parties are involved - families, children and young people, and professionals - and able to fully engage with each other on the conference call. Invites and then later professional reports are sent to families if they have an email address, as all staff are working from home there isn’t easy access to printing and postal services. Sending reports to families in advance means they have time to read and digest information before the conference, but a lot of them only have their mobile phone to read the reports on which can be challenging. On the virtual conference if they are unable to access reports as well as be part of the call, there is a need to go into more detail and recap information. Normally we would have this all on flipchart paper for them to read. That said, I still keep a note of the key headings in a note pad:
What are the main risks to the children?
How are your children protected
What do we need to know more about
I also write salient points down as the conference progresses, and then recap the points when summing up at the end.
How we still engage everyone in the virtual conference process
In the conference families are still at the centre of the discussion. I still start with asking them to describe their children, as they know their children better than any of the professionals in the call. By helping families have a voice first they feel empowered to be part of the whole meeting. We have contacted a number of families to ask how they have found the virtual conference process. They have been very understanding of the process and all said they felt heard and appreciated the phone call with the Chair beforehand. Some preferred the conference being completed in this way as they felt less intimidated by a room full of professionals and able to share their views better. Almost all families said they felt a good plan had been developed and they felt included and listened to in the planning process. Some parents said they felt able to be heard, but agreed the subtleties were missed without face to face contact. Obviously if a family member is struggling to manage their emotions appropriately, this is difficult to support them when you are not in the room together and some parents have left the conference call, but these are potentially the parents who would not have attended a conference and are in the minority. In general the feedback has been very positive.
Children and young people
Unfortunately we are unable to do ‘children’s meetings’ because of the Covid-19 restrictions but young people are still able to be part of the virtual conference if they wish to share their views directly, or with the support of an advocate. Barnardos Children’s Rights are still engaging young people over the phone which can be difficult with younger children, or with children with a disability so we are all having to be creative in thinking about how we gain their independent views.
We have always had a problem receiving reports from professionals in a timely manner. We request them three working days before an ‘initial conference’ but often reports only arrive a day or two before, or even are presented on the day. However, they now recognise that we are emailing reports to families and other professionals and reports are generally now received on time. Once the family, young people and professionals have shared their concerns and views, the writing of the risk and safety statements, the plan and decision making, happen in the same way as in a physical conference.
Unsurprisingly there are some issues with using the technology. We use Skype to hold the virtual conferences in Leeds which on the whole is able to cope, but people sometimes drop out of the calls. Then you have to juggle continuing the meeting with working out who has dropped out, and trying to bring them back into the call. We don’t have the capacity to have a video call where everyone in the conference can be seen but this is something our IT are looking into. All this does bring its challenges, with virtual conferences generally taking longer than physical conferences, but the purpose of the conference is to develop a plan to reduce risks to the children and young people we work with. This continues to happen, and feedback is positive from both families and professionals
On a personal note, working separately seems to have brought our team of Child Protection Chairs closer, we recognise the need to support each other through these unprecedented times which can be scary on a professional and personal level. We have started a WhatsApp group so we can ask each other advice, or just send uplifting messages when our colleagues need it. Although I am working at home on my own, I don’t feel alone and am actually enjoying the new challenges this difficult situation has brought us.