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Moving social work and social services online during lockdown

Tuesday 28 April 2020 8:11pm

Online forums are helping social workers share ideas on how to provide services for families during the Covid-19 lockdown, University of Otago Social and Community Work Associate Professor Emily Keddell says.

As a range of providers “find themselves scrambling to offer services remotely,” the sector is rapidly changing many aspects of social service delivery, Keddell says.

Associate Professor Emily Keddell

New methods of direct practice are seeing practitioners respond to new ethical and cultural issues; adapt team communication and safety strategies and consider service-users’ levels of access to technology.

Earlier this month Associate Professor Keddell ran an online seminar for 70 social service workers in collaboration with the Social Service Providers Aotearoa (SSPA).

At the ‘Moving Practice Online’ seminar, some practitioners said they were already offering services via traditional technologies such as phone, email and text, as well as adapting new technologies such as using apps that families themselves were comfortable with, in addition to using video calls and conferencing.

Some service users noted improved engagement with services, reporting fewer 'no shows' for appointments, and that some service users had a greater level of comfort with phone and text communication.

Practitioners said younger service users were particularly well engaged via online methods. Assisting with providing families ways to entertain and manage children was a key task, although it was pointed out that not all families are struggling, especially families who are already used to managing without external activities.

“Some of the most challenging situations identified were where there are safety concerns for either adults or children in the household. In these situations, an ability to speak privately with potential victims of violence is compromised. Practitioners had various strategies for dealing with this including using coded texts before calling, and agreeing amended safety plans, but this remained a key challenge.”

Keddell says access to technology for some service users was reported as an issue. To address this, some iwi were supplying phones and laptops to more marginalised iwi members. Similarly, people with limited English proficiency sometimes struggled with phone and text-based conversations, however, some practitioners partially solved this challenge through the use of three-way phone or zoom calls which included translators.

Ethical issues also require specific attention, and practitioners were developing or amending consent policies and practices to allow for verbal consent, and some noted that data encryption for software platforms needed checking.

Most practitioners were using a range of connective technologies such as Microsoft teams, zoom, WhatsApp, slack and Facebook groups to connect formally and informally to maintain the important peer support necessary to work with other people. A few reported some older colleagues were not as familiar with using these technologies. Clinical supervision needs were also easily met through zoom and phone conversations.

Keddell says online support and knowledge sharing sessions for practitioners may increasingly become part of the academic and sectors’ arsenal to deal with the stress of working during the lockdown.

“Knowledge exchange is important for sharing positive adaptations and having them operationalised promptly across a professional sector dealing with similar challenges. Maintaining self-care is also an important aspect of service-delivery moving forward as social workers, like other helping professions, are themselves facing significant personal and professional stressors.”

“Some changes to service delivery may continue beyond lockdown, especially with populations where the use of new technologies have proved more effective that previous practice”

Ideas from the session will be collated and shared into a document with other resources to help the sector respond to these circumstances.

Details and the report can be found here