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This content is taken from the University of Strathclyde & CELCIS's online course, COVID-19: Adapting Child Protection Case Management. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 0 seconds My name is Sara Mabger and I work as the Child Protection Coordinator for the IRC which is the International Rescue Committee in Beirut Lebanon. Hello Sara and thank you so much for joining us from Lebanon. Please can you tell us why it was important to work with other agencies to adapt the procedures of Child Protection case management during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to develop a protocol so you can safely communicate with children remotely.

Skip to 0 minutes and 30 seconds At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Lebanon the National Child Protection Case Management Taskforce, which is led by IRC and co-led by Save the Children in Lebanon, and sits under the National Child Protection Working Group brought together a small number of the core group members to think through what were some of the immediate emergency guidelines that we needed to put in place in response to COVID. Our concerns were that in the specific context children will be under confinement. Many many children would be living in houses or a form of tented settlements with the perpetrator of abuse, and in many cases they would have very little access to other services.

Skip to 1 minute and 7 seconds And most concerning, very little access to the physical presence of a Child Protection Caseworker. So we really thought it’s very important under these circumstances that we harmonise the approach between agencies, and what better way to do it than to have different agencies come together and really think through the different aspects of the process on how to provide remote support. We really wanted to ensure that even remotely there is a certain professional standard that children are receiving and that we’re all clear on what the expectations are in terms of the services that we provide.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds Our main concern though was as well that in this specific context, and and when providing remote child protection case management, how can we make sure that we aren’t doing harm. We know that remote support is not an ideal response but is the best that we can do when there are government restrictions and lock downs, and when people are living in isolation. And so that’s how we came up with the National Child Protection Case Management Guidelines for remote phone follow up during COVID-19. Please could you tell us about some of the steps in the guidelines for safely communicating with children remotely, and why the ‘Do No Harm’ principle is so important?

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 seconds The Child Protection Case Management Guidelines for remote phone follow-up support for children at risk during COVID-19 outlines three key steps that are really important for child protection caseworkers during COVID, as well as specific considerations that they need to make when providing support to different groups of children. The first step is calling the family. What are the specific things that you need to take into consideration in order to prevent harm? This includes making sure that the child feels safe. But before doing so you explain to the child and the caregiver why you’re not able to conduct a house visit.

Skip to 3 minutes and 4 seconds In Lebanon, because of government lockdown, Child Protection caseworkers are restricted from moving to households, but also children are restricted from moving around themselves. So really it’s important to make it clear that whilst we really want to support children physically, at this time for their safety and for ours, we need to stay at a distance and provide remote support. Explain how long the support will be over the phone. Make sure that it’s clear that this is like a normal session which you would normally provide in the house, but it will be provided remotely. Make sure that you clarify with the child whether or not they feel safe on the phone.

Skip to 3 minutes and 46 seconds Because we rely so heavily on visual clues it’s really important now, at remote follow-up, that we’re also considering listening more carefully to what children are saying, but also to making sure that children are not placed at specific risk while speaking on the phone to us. The second part outlines the safety and security considerations. So I already mentioned that children might be living, for example, in a household with a perpetrator. So it’s really important that you discuss with children who is the most trusted adult that they have identified, either in their household or in their community, who they can go to or where they can reach you through, should they feel that they’re at risk.

Skip to 4 minutes and 30 seconds Also make sure that you have agreed with the child a specific code. So, for example, you might agree with the child to say something related to the weather, or the Sun, or to how they’re feeling, or something that will not cause concern if they say it over the phone in case someone is listening. This way this could be an indication for you that the child is at risk and you can agree on the meaning of the code with the child so that should they be in a situation where they cannot speak freely and they feel at risk they can say the code.

Skip to 5 minutes and 3 seconds Another thing to consider is that children at risk might be living at home with their perpetrators and might be in overcrowded settings where they won’t have access to privacy. So try and be creative, but within reason, making sure that you always keep children’s best interests at heart. You ‘Do No Harm’, and that you’re supporting them to participate very clearly in the decisions that affect their lives. So, for example, you can ask them is there anywhere close to the house where you don’t come into contact with people where you’re very very close but where no one can hear you speaking on the phone, so that you can have some privacy. They might have a room.

Skip to 5 minutes and 44 seconds There might be a field right outside the house. Of course, as a caseworker, if you have already provided support to the child and you have a visual memory of what the area around the house is, perhaps that could help with identifying a spot which does not place the child in danger by going to there, but at least make sure that the child has some privacy. The third step is really making sure that you’re supporting the child to access all the services that they, that they need during that time, and making sure that you’re also thinking through COVID-19 specific plans. So what will happen if someone in the family falls ill from COVID? What are the specific care arrangements?

Skip to 6 minutes and 27 seconds Also considering a protection safety plan with a child. So in many cases the caregivers ideally should be part of the safety plan and should be part of the whole child protection case plan process. But what do you do in situations where this isn’t possible? Make sure that it’s very clear to the child the different services that you’re referring them to, how often you’re going to be following up, how long you will spend on the phone with them. Make sure that you are calling them and they are not calling you so that they’re not incurring the cost. And really make sure that you’ve supported them to think through the different potential scenarios for COVID.

Skip to 7 minutes and 5 seconds And lastly, what are the specific considerations that you need to take for unaccompanied and separated children. For people who are at specific risks, such as children who have been exposed to sexual assault and are child survivors. You need to make sure that on an immediate basis they’re able to access clinical management of rape, and this will require that you physically accompany the child to the service, because there are some services which cannot be provided remotely. There are many ways that we can cause harm as Child Protection practitioners and caseworkers during a response like COVID. A Child Protection caseworker can call a child with a perpetrator in the household.

Skip to 7 minutes and 49 seconds Ask the child very sensitive information over the phone and the perpetrator might hear the discussion over the phone. The perpetrator might be aware that the child is accessing services and asking for help. All of this might place the child at risk if, if the Child Protection caseworker doesn’t take numerous steps along the process to really carefully think and discuss with the child. One, what are the safety measures that they will take throughout the case management process? So, is there a specific phone in the house that can be used? Are there specific times of the day that are better to call the child? Is there a specific code that can be used for their safety?

Skip to 8 minutes and 31 seconds ‘Do No Harm’ is a key principle for Child Protection caseworkers and really needs to guide every single step of the process. It’s not something that Child Protection caseworkers can address during the first call, but not think about during the other calls. Child Protection caseworkers will need to specifically pay attention to changes in the child’s voice in case someone enters the room that the child might not feel comfortable speaking in front of. And if that’s the case ‘Do No Harm’. Make sure that you stop the call if you feel that the child is uncomfortable.

Skip to 9 minutes and 2 seconds If you hear an adult in the background whispering to the child what to say then it’s not appropriate to continue the call, because we need to make sure that the children are safe and that we aren’t placing them at further risk by contacting them.

Reaching children remotely - an example of promising practice

As we have discussed in previous course steps, due to COVID-19, it may not always be possible for caseworkers to undertake face-to-face visits with children in their homes or other settings where they are living - whether to follow up on a referral and make an assessment, or during the implementation of any agreed support and follow-up.

In this video we hear from Sara Mabger who is working as the Child Protection Coordinator for International Rescue Committee in Beirut, Lebanon. Sara tells us how members of the national Child Protection Case Management Taskforce have developed a Child Protection Case Management Guidance for Remote Phone Follow-up in COVID-19. We do urge you to read the full guidance that can be found here.

Sara explains how the guidance recommends remote child protection case management should only be considered in circumstances when it is not possible to conduct support in person as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And most importantly, how caseworkers should always remember the ‘do no harm’ principle and ensure no actions are taken that places the child at additional risk whilst contacting them.

Sara tells provides us with details about some of the steps laid out in the guidance to make sure a child can safely speak to a caseworker. This includes:

  • Asking the child if they feel safe and asking their consent or assent to continue with the phone call. If the child sounds uncomfortable do not continue and ask the child if they are able to contact you when she/he is available through a missed-call, text message, or any other means that she/he feels comfortable
  • Once you are sure it is safe to proceed, ask the following questions to confirm the child’s safety:

    • Are you comfortable talking right now?
    • Do you agree to continue this talk now over the phone? Or, do you prefer we schedule for a different time? Or, do you prefer to text me or make a missed-call when you are ready?
    • Is this the right number to call you on? Or, do you prefer me to call you on another number?
    • Are you taking the call from a room where you can speak privately and no-one can hear you? If this is not possible, don’t worry, we will manage. I can ask you some questions to which you can just answer YES or NO if that makes it easier for you. Does that sound ok?
  • Agree with the child what will happen if, for example:

    • Someone involved in the abuse, or someone who the child doesn’t trust in the place you are calling them picks up the phone
    • If the child does not feel safe/confident as someone may be listening to the call and there is a need to stop the call.
  • Agree with the child on a safe word or a code that they can use if they feel unsafe and would rather not speak any more
  • Assure the child that they can change the subject if they feel unsafe or are being listened to. Suggest if this happens they can start talking about something else like discussing the weather or any activities they have been doing etc.
  • Repeatedly ask the child for their consent to continue e.g.:

    • Do you feel safe enough for our conversation?
    • Please know that it’s ok to say no to me. I can call back at another time that is better for you. I am here to support you
    • Are you fine talking now?
  • Once safety is confirmed, you can continue
  • At all times let the child freely express and talk as much as he/she needs/wants. Use positive communication and listening skills. Be attentive and knowledgeable, be cautious and prepared to be assertive!

What is very important is if the child does not sound comfortable, do not continue the call and give them an option to contact you when they do feel more comfortable speaking. Remember, you can suggest they contact you through a missed-call, text message, or any other means that they feel comfortable with. In the event where it is assessed that the child is in imminent danger, consider checking with the child whether there is an adult in the immediate vicinity who they trust and can go to for help. Also consider the importance of making a face-to-face visit.

Again, please do read the full guidance which provides a lot more information including things to consider when calling a child for the very first time.

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This video is from the free online course:

COVID-19: Adapting Child Protection Case Management

University of Strathclyde