That is the message from Oxfordshire County Council’s principal social worker, Annelies Henshall, as she and her teams strive to protect vulnerable children and families during the pandemic.
Annelies, from north Oxfordshire, has worked for the county council in children’s services for nearly two decades, but has never experienced challenges like the ones this year has brought.
Her role is to help improve the quality of life for local children; from working alongside families to provide targeted support to protect against abuse and exploitation, to finding forever-homes via foster care or adoption – and listening to and understanding children’s needs and aspirations.
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Annelies said: “COVID-19 has impacted on how we provide social care and increased the ‘out of sight’ risks to children. We’re working together, with children and families, to support the #Stopthespread campaign.
“At the height of lockdown, we couldn’t visit most children in their homes. They were isolated, behind closed doors, home-schooling. If they were struggling at home or being abused or exploited, it was more difficult to detect.
“For many, the computer and social media have become their ‘windows to the world’. We know that across the UK there has been an increase in online grooming this year. Predators exploiting young people through their computer screens and networks.
“Teachers are trained to pick-up tell-tale signs of abuse, but this is extremely difficult to do when the classroom is a bedroom or living room; lessons via a computer.”
Annelies and her teams have risen to the challenge, introducing a range of creative and innovative ways to keep in contact and engage with potentially vulnerable children and families.
She added: “Teddy bears in face masks and virtual visits are two of the techniques.
“We’ve used WhatsApp and MS Teams, similar to teachers, connecting with individual children remotely, and in organising group chats with children, parents and carers. A lot of young people are digitally savvy, so they respond very well to these online conversations.
“As lockdown has eased, we’ve been able to begin visiting homes again. But we’re incredibly careful to ensure safe-distancing and wear PPE so staff look very different; for young children, possibly quite frightening.
“Imagine, I walk into a family’s living room clad in gloves, face mask and apron - I’m going to look a bit scary.
“That’s why some staff have made little teddy bear face masks. Rosie the COVID Bear allows them to explain to children why we are doing things differently, and how we are trying to keep everyone safe from the virus.
“It’s a fun way to engage, to help children relax and talk to staff.
“We visit many families because they’ve become overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting; in many cases made worse by the psychological pressures of COVID-19; the whole family trying to live, work and learn 24/7 under one roof.
“Parents often appreciate the more creative ways we’ve come up with to talk to their children.”
Annelies can empathise with these family challenges. Like so many of us, she has found the life-changes resulting from COVID-19 difficult and frustrating.
She added: “I love running. I’ve completed the Oxford half-marathon in the past. But mass participation events are cancelled this year. So, I make a special effort to put on my trainers and jog around the block in my spare time. It gets me out of the house, keeps me fit, eases the stress, and helps me focus. Exercise charges my ‘creative batteries’ too.
“My passion is to make a difference to young people’s lives. I’m proud of how me and my Oxfordshire County Council team have risen to the COVID-19 challenge, to ensure we’re there for children and families when they need support the most.
Ansaf Azhar, director of public health for Oxfordshire County Council, said: “Annelies and her team are taking great care to abide by national guidelines that are keeping us as safe as possible. I urge everyone in Oxfordshire to continue to follow their example. Don’t relax and give COVID-19 the advantage. Together we can stop the spread.”
To find out more about children’s services go to: https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/residents/children-education-and-familiesIf you have any concerns about child abuse, grooming or exploitation in Oxfordshire, contact our Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub on 0345 050 7666.