Coronavirus lockdown posed ‘significant’ child protection challenges

Social workers had to adapt and innovate to safeguard at-risk children no longer at school

Coronavirus lockdown posed ‘significant’ child protection challenges

The safeguarding of vulnerable children who have been confined to their homes during the Coronavirus pandemic has been of primary concern to local social workers.

In Derry social workers in all fields have had to overcome ‘significant challenges’ during the crisis and adapt to new ways of working.

The closure of schools in March meant that children had to stay at home. 

Face-to-face visits are a fundamental part of social work practice but social distancing restricted that access with at-risk children over recent months.

Workers rely on visiting young people and their families within the home environment in order to get an accurate assessment of each individual child’s needs.

It was incumbent on social workers to ensure that at-risk children were kept safe during this period.

Ciaran O’Doherty is the Principal Social Worker for the Westbank Family Intervention Service (FIS) and the Domestic Violence Specific Team (DVST) in Derry.

All families who are referred to social services due to concerns for the welfare of the children go through its Gateway service which is the single point of entry.

The cases are assessed as either not requiring any further service, in need of services but this need can be met in the community/voluntary sector or in need of ongoing support from statutory social services.

Explaining the difficulty with completing home visits due to the risk of infection Mr O’Doherty said: “Visits to our most vulnerable children were completed, for the most part, at the doorstep of the home at the very beginning of the current lockdown.

“Use of video calls were also a means of progressing our assessments whilst adhering to lockdown guidance.

“Staff have been performing home visits inside the home throughout lockdown and the frequency of these visits inside the home have increased significantly as staff and families are getting more used to the dramatic changes to daily life.

“The availability of all necessary PPE has also helped to manage concerns with regard to infection control in this respect.”


For the first few weeks of lockdown, there was a considerable decrease in the volume of calls regarding child protection from families, the public and partner agencies.

“Our worry was that we would miss significant child protection issues as a result in the drop in call volume, but thankfully, as people are getting more used to the new normal that is lockdown, they are now also more confident in reporting in concerns to us again, which helps us to ensure that we can address child protection issues in a timely manner,” Mr O’Doherty added.

With regards to school closures, it has been a collaborative effort between social workers, the schools and community groups.

Mr O’Doherty noted: “School can be a place of safety for vulnerable children where they feel secure and receive a hot meal every day.

“During lockdown we have approached all of our vulnerable families to see if they would be confident to send their children to school.

“Given the concerns regarding infection, a lot of families are reluctant to allow their children to attend school, however, for those who wished for their children to attend, we have made contact with the relevant schools and ensured that these children have been offered a place.”

“The community sector has played a vital role in ensuring that meals were provided to these families and have worked very closely with our service to ensure that the loss of free school meals did not lead to children going hungry.

“We have also ensured that we maintain high levels of contact with these families to ensure that the children’s welfare continues to be monitored when they are not attending school on a daily basis.”

Above: A minute's silence for deceased health and social care workers during the pandemic held outside Shantallow Health Centre.


The service has had to find new and innovative ways to engage with families.

Instrumental to that process has been the use of video communication.

Children who no longer live with one or both parents were able to maintain contact during the pandemic in this way.

In addition, this method was used to progress ongoing assessments and educative work.

Mr O’Doherty observed: “This has been vital to ensure that cases are progressed and that concerns are addressed in a timely manner.

“We have used Words and Pictures story boards for young children to help explain the pandemic to them and explain why sometimes people were coming to their home dressed in PPE, which as you can imagine, could be frightening for some younger children.”


During the pandemic some social workers were redeployed to other teams.

A number moved to residential care homes, while other staff from support services moved to front line child protection.

This has thrown up some ‘surprising benefits’ as well as the anticipated obstacles but efforts have been made

“As a result of one family centre social worker moving to the domestic violence team, a piece of work was carried out to devise a programme to work with parents who have suffered trauma in childhood which now impacts on their attachment with their children.

“It is hoped that this programme will be rolled out into practice in the coming months.

“Child protection has been a significant challenge during the current crisis.

“Social workers have had to challenge the accepted norms and find new ways of conducting their assessments and interventions.”

Mr O’Doherty continued: “They have had to enter the homes of service users who were symptomatic in order to ensure that the children were safe and at times move them to a place of safety whilst facing serious risk of harm to their own health and safety.

“They have shown immense bravery in continuing to exercise their duty of care to the most vulnerable children in our society.

“I am proud of each and every one of our social workers who have ensured that our most vulnerable children have remained safe during the most challenging crisis in living memory.”

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