I’m no stranger to heart-breaking situations, but telling an autistic eight-year-old girl that she has to leave her beloved foster family during the pandemic, due to their underlying health conditions, remains one of the most difficult things I have ever done.
Being too young to understand what my words really meant, she responded: ‘OK, but when can I come home again?’.
I looked to her foster parents, willing them to give her some glimmer of hope. But they remained silent, leaving it up to me, her social worker. I stuttered ‘I can’t make any promises, sweetheart’.
I cried all the way home, furious that coronavirus was stealing from those who already had nothing.
It is often said that people fall into one of two categories – those who work to live, and those who live to work. I definitely belonged to the latter.
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For me, helping people wasn’t just a job – it was my identity. Having been through the care system as a child, I was determined to change it from the inside out.
I wanted to be the social worker I had needed growing up – someone who didn’t break promises.
Over the years, I put my heart and soul into my career, but I soon realised that working in the context of austerity meant that, despite my best intentions, not all promises could be kept.
With an ever-increasing caseload, I was stretched so thin that I often questioned what difference I was really making. I was running on empty, the stress and exhaustion robbing me of peace even in my personal life. I worked evenings and weekends just to keep my head above water, but it meant it was impossible to switch off.
When the pandemic hit, a job that was barely manageable became impossible.
For the majority of the children I worked with, school was a lifeline – an escape from their abusive environment. But data showed that only a maximum 5% of vulnerable children eligible to attend school did so in lockdown.
So I was no longer just concerned for the children’s safety during evenings and weekends, I was now worrying every second of every day, for months on end.
I couldn’t rely on teachers to flag signs of abuse, and beyond education, there was a domino effect of reduced services including counselling, contact centres, mother and baby groups, and disability support.
The most vulnerable children were off the radar.
The word ‘helpless’ doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Knowing that the most at-risk children were falling through the cracks was soul-destroying. It was my job to protect them, yet I could no longer do that with any confidence.
And, at a selfish level, it felt like my sense of purpose had been threatened.
The responsibility of managing cases of domestic violence, gang crime, neglect, and human trafficking during an unforeseen pandemic was heavier than I can describe
The majority of home visits had to be conducted virtually. In the best-case scenarios, families accepted, but it felt inappropriate to discuss traumatic events over a two-dimensional screen.
Parents keen to avoid the scrutiny of social services wouldn’t answer at all, which left me no choice but to put both my own and their health at risk by turning up unannounced at their door.
Some claimed to have underlying health conditions or coronavirus symptoms, so I couldn’t even check if the children were OK, if an abusive partner was hiding inside or even if there was food in the house.
I felt utterly useless.
After pleading to speak to one young boy, his parents agreed to a doorstep visit. As per the safety measures, I stood six feet away, wearing PPE.
As the boy opened up to me about his fragile mental health and suicidal thoughts, the lack of confidentiality was the least of my worries. I felt emotionally stunted – my mask restricted me from showing any sort of empathy. It was all so very dystopian.
I soon began to have panic attacks whenever I received an email or a phone call. The responsibility of managing cases of domestic violence, gang crime, neglect, and human trafficking during an unforeseen pandemic was heavier than I can describe.
And I could no longer seek comfort from my colleagues while working from home.
Deep down, I knew that I was just as in need of support as the families I was trying to help.
I felt like a hypocrite advising others on managing mental health during the pandemic, when my own was in tatters. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and regularly threw up out of anxiety, paranoid that I had forgotten to send a food parcel to a hungry family, arrange emergency accommodation or alert the police to yet another incident.
Three months into the pandemic, I developed compassion fatigue. I just couldn’t feel anymore. That’s when I knew it was time to quit my job.
The double jeopardy of austerity and coronavirus meant it was impossible to provide children with a service they deserved.
I worry about how key workers will make it through a second lockdown.
While those on the ground – social workers, managers and councils, are doing remarkable things to love and serve communities, there is only so much they can do without funding, support, and recognition (not just half-hearted clapping on a Thursday night).
Contingency must exist in future emergencies, so the burden does not fall entirely to frontline staff.
In an ideal world, key workers would do a four-day-week, leaving reserve forces to pick up the other days. This would carve out space to reflect and recharge.
Despite being painted as superheroes, key workers are only human. We need time to process emotions, rest and be with our loved ones.
For how can we be a pillar of strength to others if we ourselves are broken?
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