Child protection and social distancing: Social work during the COVID-19 pandemic

A crucial way child protection work is achieved is by social workers getting close to children, especially on home visits, and immersing themselves in the lives of parents and families. In a period of institutionalised social distancing, how is the pandemic impacting upon the ways practitioners are helping families and keeping children safe?

Researchers: Professor Harry Ferguson (University of Birmingham), Professor Sarah Pink (Monash), Dr Laura Kelly (University of Birmingham)

This study will last for 15 months (from 2020-2021) during which the experiences and practices of a sample of social workers and managers based in four local authorities in England will be explored through interviews and other digital ethnographic methods, pioneered by Professor Sarah Pink. We will focus on how children and families are being worked with through in-person and virtual home visits during the pandemic, including the availability and use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The research will also explore the social worker’s experiences of their organisations and maintaining social distancing by working almost exclusively from their own homes. Using a qualitative longitudinal approach, led by Professor Harry Ferguson at the University of Birmingham, detailed data will be gathered on social work with selected families, which will draw out the challenges involved in sustaining relationships and effective child protection over the long term during COVID-19. We also plan to interview a sample of parents to establish the family’s experience of social work practice, both in-person and virtual, during the pandemic.

To achieve this the research will focus on the work of four (anonymous) local authorities in England in partnership with Research in Practice and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

“This project addresses a key issue raised by the COVID-19 pandemic by combining my expertise on digital technologies in everyday life and visual and digital methodologies with Professor Harry Ferguson’s amazing research into child protection social work.”

Professor Sarah Pink, Emerging Technologies Research Lab

About the research team

Professor Harry Ferguson is Professor of Social Work at the University of Birmingham. He has taught and researched widely in the areas of social work and child protection, domestic abuse, fatherhood, masculinities and men's lives, mobile research methods, ethnography, and the social science of social work.

Professor Sarah Pink is Director of the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University in Australia, and a world-leading Design Anthropologist, known for her development of innovative digital, visual and sensory research and dissemination methodologies.

Dr Laura Kelly is Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and a sociologist with experience of researching work with children and young people.

This research is based at the University of Birmingham and funded by ESRC.