Yesterday (18 November 2020), Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation published two reports detailing the impact of coronavirus on the probation and youth offending services respectively. Yesterday’s blog post summarises the findings from the thematic review of the Exceptional Delivery Model arrangements in probation services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s post looks at the conclusions from HMIP’s thematic review of the work of youth offending services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One child quoted in the report described the virus and lockdown as a “blessing and a curse”, and Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell says:
“This neatly sums up what staff, organisations, children and their families have experienced. This report identifies those blessings, including committed staff putting children first to keep them safe. But the curses, for example isolation from friends, family and colleagues, must also be uncovered and addressed as the pandemic continues.”
Inspectors found that leaders and managers at a local and partnership level responded quickly to the needs of children and families. Methods of working and the delivery of services were reviewed, prioritising those children in greatest need and the safety of the workforce. Planning was shared with staff teams and was reviewed and adapted as lessons were learned and the pandemic progressed. Children and families remained at the heart of the work; inspectors found examples of innovation, care and commitment to supporting children. Many were already facing significant difficulties, and they were supported to cope with the additional trauma that the coronavirus and lockdown brought. The alignment of YOTs with local authorities and their ability to plan with and alongside partners allowed them to respond flexibly to local need.
However, local authorities and YOT partners were also inundated with guidance and documents, which they needed to read, understand, cross-reference and implement. This process was hampered by the lack of a standard format, which would have made it easier to extract key information.
Some work, such as referral order panels and out-of-court disposals, was initially halted. However, over time, each YOT made decisions on which activities it could safely reintroduce. Out-of-court disposal panels resumed quickly, and work to support desistance was delivered. As courts closed, the number of new court-ordered cases reduced. This allowed case managers to focus on children who were identified as high priority. In the coming months, the backlog of cases waiting to be heard at court will start to be cleared, and this will have a significant impact on the workload of some YOTs.
Inspectors did raise a number of concerns. They highlighted the experience of parents who were victims of child and adolescent violence, calling for a sharper focus and more detailed planning for the protection of parental victims. The nature of this abuse and age of the perpetrators means that the arrangements for adults that would normally be part of victim safety planning and multi-agency risk assessment conferences (MARAC) don’t all apply. Victims were advised to call the police if they were under threat or being attacked, but there are specific difficulties for parents when the perpetrator is their own child. There is also a potential conflict when the YOT worker is trying to reduce the child’s challenging behaviour and support the victim at the same time. Inspectors say that a new approach is needed to tackle this issue.
There was also concerns that joint work with custodial establishments has been difficult. It has been significantly affected by the lack of IT systems in custody to enable communication with YOTs in the community and the need to stop visits to control the spread of the virus. Inspectors found this had had a detrimental impact on resettlement planning.
Inspectors found a stark digital divide among children. Almost half of the children whose cases were reviewed for the report did not have access to internet-enabled technology. Some families did not have computers or broadband packages, including families where parents/carers had lost their jobs or were on furlough. Consequently, it has been difficult for youth offending services to keep in regular contact with some children.
Another major concern was that forty per cent of the children in the sample for this report did not access any form of education or training during the national lockdown.
Inspectors found that some aspects of service delivery and work to protect children and victims have become much more difficult, including undertaking assessments without meeting the child, contact with children in custody and the use of breach to support compliance. It took time for some of the risks to others to become apparent, and risks to victims of domestic abuse needed more consideration from the start of lockdown. One YOT had developed a COVID-19-specific risk assessment. This proved to be a useful tool for discussing the issues with children and families and for identifying contact arrangements and individual risks. Other YOTs adapted existing assessment tools to take account of COVID-19.
The move to remote working was much easier where there was an existing relationship with a child. Some children who received out-of-court disposals had their assessments and interventions delivered entirely remotely. Staff and managers were unsure about this, as it is not their normal practice. Staff were creative in developing helpful online sessions with children, promoting learning and their wellbeing. As government restrictions were eased, direct contact, usually out of doors, became more frequent. Described as ‘walk and talk’, children and staff liked this method of working and plan to keep it as part of practice. Children liked phone contact, reflecting that this helped them to get to know staff and build relationships initially but that they then wanted to meet with the worker directly.
Inspectors found that parents appreciated the practical support they received from the YOTs, who delivered food parcels, provided activities for children, and gave advice on managing children’s behaviour and anxieties. Some senior managers saw this as an opportunity to improve the relationships with families. Parents also welcomed the chance to become more involved in delivering interventions and YOT work. They told us that they understood their child better as a result.
Inspectors note that the needs of and risks to children have become more acute. Lockdown has also changed the risk of harm to others, in some cases reducing this but in others increasing it, most notably where there was child and adolescent violence to parents. It will take time for all children to come to terms with the effects of COVID-19, and for many children on YOT caseloads this will be an additional adversity to add to an already lengthy list. The skills and care shown by staff will be fundamental to the recovery of these children.
Inspectors conclude that flexible working has been accelerated because of COVID-19. Being at home and working has had benefits for many, but this does not suit all aspects of YOT work, especially when children and their families do not have access to technology.
Thanks to Kelly Sikkema for permission to use this header image, originally published on Unsplash.