Child protection and social distancing: Improving the capacity of social workers to keep children safe during the COVID-19 pandemic

This research will explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child protection practice and vulnerable children and families and seek to improve the capacity of social workers and other professionals to keep children safe in a period of institutionalised social distancing. 

Previous research has shown that 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. The primary research question for the study is how can practices that have relied on achieving closeness keep children safe and help families in a period of institutionalised social distancing and at a time of increased stress, poverty and risks of domestic abuse and other harms within families?

This research is funded by ESRC and will run from 2020-2021.


Building on our existing research on effective child protection (Ferguson, 2011, 2016, 2017, 2018; Ferguson et al, 2020; Disney et al, 2019) and on the use of digital technology in everyday life (Pink et al, 2015; Pink et al, 2017), we will identify areas of concern, as well as opportunities that the changed conditions for practice have created and advise on effective responses. To achieve this the research will focus on the work of four (anonymous) local authorities in England and we will work with our project partners Research in Practice and the British Association of Social Workers. .

The picture of how the pandemic is affecting social work and child protection is fast-moving, but a common approach being taken is for those children considered to be at medium and high risk of harm to receive either ‘virtual home visits’ via video calls, or in-person home visits, or both.    

The key aims of the research are to: 

  1. Ascertain how the pandemic is impacting upon the ways practitioners are relating to children and parents and their capacities to keep children safe and help parents.
  2. Identify the innovative digital methods being adopted to make virtual home visits, assess their effectiveness in keeping children safe and advise on how they can be most productively used during and after the pandemic.
  3. Identify how social work organisations are coping with the new definitions of accountability and risk that arise from social distancing and the implications for government inspection and assessments of good practice.
  4. Ascertain the effects of COVID-19 on social worker’s well-being and practice, including the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and what it is like for staff working almost exclusively from home, the quality of emotional support and case direction being provided.
  5. Ascertain service users’ experiences of social work during the pandemic and the extent to which parents' needs and rights are understood and being responded to. 


The study will last for 15 months 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 (Pink, et al 2016). 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 social worker’s experiences of their organisations and maintaining social distancing by working almost exclusively from their own homes.  Using a qualitative longitudinal approach (Ferguson, et al 2019), 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 longer 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. 

Research team

Professor Harry Ferguson (PI)

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.

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Harry Ferguson

Professor Sarah Pink 

Professor Sarah Pink is Director of the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University in Australia, which undertakes critical interdisciplinary and international research into the social, cultural and experiential dimensions of the design, use and futures of new and emerging technologies.

Her research focuses on emerging intelligent technologies, automation, data, digital futures, safety and design for wellbeing. Sarah is also a world leading Design Anthropologist, known for her development of innovative digital, visual and sensory research and dissemination methodologies.

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Sarah Pink

Dr Laura Kelly

Dr Laura Kelly (Research Fellow) is a sociologist with experience of researching work with children and young people in a number of settings. She has also explored how practitioners navigate working in an environment of rapid policy change.

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Laura Kelly

Project collaborators


The research will seek to inform understandings of the impact of the pandemic on children families and child protection practice while it is ongoing through regular research briefings on emerging findings.

The scaling up of the research impacts and dissemination will be achieved through working closely with our collaborators on the project, Research in Practice and the British Association of Social Workers. Webinars will be provided to summarise the findings and their implications for social work staff, managers, policy makers and service users at the mid-way point and end of the research. Practice guidance will be produced, as well as insights and recommendations for the future regarding what can be learned from how practice adjusted and innovated during the pandemic, for instance with respect to the uses of digital technology. Theoretical and empirical papers will be published in open access academic journals.  


Research briefings

This section contains research briefings, which share emerging findings from the project. It is hoped that sharing findings while the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing will help social workers and social work organisations respond effectively to rapidly changing conditions.


Learning from Lockdown: Social work and child protection during COVID-19

4 November 2020

Hosted by Research in Practice. Free to register

The COVID-19 crisis is presenting governments, social work leaders, managers and child protection practitioners with unique challenges. This webinar will draw on research that has been studying how social work and social care practices that have relied on achieving closeness to keep children safe and help families have been managing social distancing and other challenges at a time of increased stress and risks of harm within families.

This webinar will share emerging findings about how COVID-19, lockdown and the ebbing and flowing of restrictions has disrupted child protection work. We will consider how the risk of infection and constraints of social distancing have introduced new barriers to safe and effective practice. We will also share learning from lockdown about what can best be achieved when significant local and national restrictions are re-introduced. This will include emerging findings about how these challenges have led children’s social care practitioners to improvise in creative ways, integrating a variety of modes of in-person and digital communication and ways of relating that have been helpful to children and families.

Join us as we consider the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child protection. By reflecting on the lessons of the recent past, we hope to help ensure the best possible response to an uncertain future.

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