On 22 May, in Bristol, a remote family court hearing was conducted via Zoom. The hearing concerned a couple 'whose children had received severe, unexplained injuries'. Potentially, the couple could be separated from their children, the youngest being only a few weeks old, which threatened the parental bond as long-distance video contact with children that young is quite meaningless.
The procedure was part of a training aid, a mock court hearing, organized by Bristol Family Law Bar Association and Bristol Resolution, and directed towards social workers. The mock hearing revealed the obstacles faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid scale of changes needed and expected from social workers during the lockdown. As Community Care points out, non-emergency hearings were almost completely suspended when lockdown began.
A survey was conducted in the weeks leading up to the mock hearing in Bristol. It asked social workers to highlight the most pressing challenges they are facing right now. It put together the fears and challenges they face, most prominently, the lack of face-to-face contact and inclusion of parents in online activities in a manner accessible to all, as well as issues surrounding the confidentiality of online meetings.
The survey found that:
- Most of the hearings can be conducted online without causing injustice
- Certain situations were outlined that could render such hearings difficult, if not impossible. These cases include, 'a mother giving evidence from a garden shed with her children in the house, and a couple dialling in from pay-as-you-go mobiles from the side of a motorway'.
- Pre-proceedings assessments can be more difficult than usual and social workers struggle to account for these difficulties
Cathy Ashley, the chief executive of the Family Rights Group charity, points out that 'We’re also regularly finding child protection conferences and other key meetings are being held by phone, with parents often unclear as to who is even in the room, let alone how they can contribute effectively.' This procedure is perceived as disadvantageous towards parents and should not become normalized.
Some social workers point out difficulties with reaching out to parents, who have limited mobile data and/or access to certain platforms, as well as difficulties in addressing inaccurate comments on presenting their point of view in an unfamiliar setting.
However, the use of remote, Internet-based methods has improved social workers’ relations with teenagers, who are more comfortable with social media and online forms of contact. This way of staying in touch is more effective and productive when it comes to young people, according to one of the managers of a team based in the North East.
While these practices are not a substitute for face-to-face conversation in the long run, they are a sign of resilience and creativity among social workers during the pandemic. The adaptations for lockdown will be in place at least until the end of the year, and social workers have no choice but to move forward and try to alleviate disadvantages and problems resulting from delays in court hearings and other procedures.