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7 Reasons to Celebrate Frontline Street Social Workers

Produced by the Consortium for Street Children.

International Day for Street Children

12th of April is The International Day for Street Children. It is a day to raise awareness of street children’s realities and respect for their rights in all parts of the world. This year, we want the international day to acknowledge those who work directly on the street with them. 

Throughout the pandemic, frontline workers have had to take extraordinary measures to ensure that street-connected children did not see vital care and services interrupted. Mobility restrictions posed a challenge to the existing networks that street workers had established to facilitate the delivery of their activities and services.  

We are excited that so many organisations want to celebrate the valuable work that frontline workers carry out. Here are seven reasons why we think you’ll want to join us in celebrating them on International Day for Street Children.  

They build trust

Frontline workers know that street social work is about establishing trust and creating a safe environment for street children. They show compassion and friendliness, ensuring that their relationships with the children are based on mutual respect and admiration.

Street social workers know the field better than anyone else. They are the first point of reconnection with a community they have often lost faith in, are referral points for other services, and they are messengers needed to understand street-connected children’s situations fully. By supporting street social workers in this work, decision-makers can design more appropriate specialised interventions for children in street situations.

They listen

Because social work requires direct contact with many street-connected children and people, they become skilled at developing good interpersonal relationships and strengthening these connections. Frontline workers can handle situations that can be a source of tension by displaying friendliness and sympathy towards other people, good humour, the ability to know, to listen, the ability to express oneself and to convince, the ability to communicate, the ability to be welcoming, openness and availability.

They do not require professionalisation to be professional

Street workers can be formal and informal – both have the same merit and deserve the same respect. Often those who are close enough to work closely with street children do so without any prior degree or qualification. They learn on the ground in a blended process involving practice and training courses. However, regardless of their background, they are individuals who are fully committed to the best interests of the street children and are guided by high standards of care and protection towards them. Those who work with street-connected children are the first point of contact for delivering services to them.

They multitask

Street work requires many different skills which allow the street worker to adapt to the immediate scenario. They are not only service providers but also mentors, therapists, teachers, caregivers, legal champions, leaders, listeners, and more. They engage in multiple roles to break down boundaries so that street-connected children can rebuild trust in a world which has failed them.

Sometimes, the street workers themselves have experienced living on the streets, thus giving them a unique skillset and knowledge.

They provide essential services

The services provided by frontline workers blur the boundaries between mainstream society and marginalised groups such as street-connected children. They enable services to become more accessible in ways tailored to street children’s needs in terms of accessibility, methods, and settings. Therefore, their frontline work turns them into powerful actors to generate real social inclusion and remove the barriers between social policies and social change by opening spaces for the involvement of street-connected children. If it were not for frontline workers and their willingness to be with street children when they need them most, many would neither have access to essential services nor be able to learn about forms of exercising their rights.

They believe in street-connected children 

Street social workers know better than anyone that street children are not victims but active agents in writing a better future for themselves. They act with the conviction and confidence that children can play a leading role in their development.

They overcome obstacles

All social action work faces difficulties and obstacles, such as rejection, apathy, ingratitude, non-compliance with planned activities, among others. Despite the hardship, frontline workers persist.


People assume street work is a simple thing to do. But in practice, it is a 24/7 job that is demanding and intricate. 

It is a job that requires to a large extent, affection, and protection for all the street children and young people with whom they collaborate. Street workers have a common identity despite different contexts. Respecting child rights is a mindset.  

Therefore, we wish to highlight that their work does not go unnoticed, and we are confident that they are positive role models not only for the street-connected children but also for us. 

Find out more about International Day for Street Children.

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Addressing child protection concerns through the integration of social service workers in schools

Two children stand outside of a schoolA new technical note, developed by the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance and UNICEF, finds that violence against children and other child protection concerns can be addressed more effectively when social service workers are integrated into school structures.

“Children spend a significant amount of time each day in school, making it a space where child protection concerns often present themselves, and giving school-based staff a vital frontline role in identification and response,” explains Stephen Blight, Senior Advisor for Child Protection at UNICEF.

“When appropriately capacitated, resourced and supported, social service workers located in or working with schools can play a major role in addressing concerns related to violence, abuse and neglect, mental health, and psychosocial well-being,” Blight continues.

The technical note, which included a review of evidence across the globe, finds that teachers and school administrators usually have primary responsibility for reporting child protection concerns, but in many countries, they do not have the training and support, or time, to recognize signs and symptoms of abuse or violence, to record concerns, or to make referrals. In fact, studies have shown that teachers in different contexts tend to under-report child abuse due to lack of knowledge about the signs and symptoms of abuse, unclear reporting procedures and fear of making inaccurate reports.

A social worker works with a child in GuatemalaWhile it is recommended that teacher and administrator training and support remain a central component of child protection within schools, child protection and well-being concerns can be addressed more effectively if the responsibility is shared with social service workers. Properly trained and supported social service workers can work with teachers and administrators to establish an overall protective climate and culture in schools that is safe, non-violent and inclusive. They can also provide intensive and specialized support for at-risk students. They can also connect interventions at school with the wider child protection system and effectively follow-up on child protection concerns when making external referrals and collaborating with other agencies.

Research for this technical note found that over 50 countries in different parts of the world have a designated role of school social worker, but they use very different models of school social work. In the United Arab Emirates, all public schools have assigned social workers, at two levels: a social worker handles promotive and preventative work and manages ‘low-risk’ issues, while ‘high-risk’ issues are referred to a child protection specialist who has the legal authority to visit homes and intervene to protect a child from imminent danger. In Ecuador, the “Departamentos de Consejeria Estudiantil”, or DECE, work within educational institutions to ensure the protection and well-being of students. DECEs are composed of interdisciplinary teams, which include social workers, and have the responsibility to provide referrals and follow-up for students affected by violence within the school and/or community. In Mongolia, a provision for school social work was included in the ‘Law on Child Protection’ when it was amended in 2003. The ministry of education produced a job description for school social workers, assigning them a range of duties that include policy development, provision of parenting education, assessment and referrals, counselling, response to domestic violence allegations and more general family welfare tasks.

In other contexts, the key source of support for students is the role of school-based counsellor. In many countries, this role has expanded from supporting students’ academic and career development, to incorporate supporting students’ mental health and well-being. For example, in Jordan, the role of school-based counsellor includes running mental health programs for children and providing follow-up for cases of children found to be particularly at risk. In Bhutan, the ministry of education builds the capacity of school counsellors by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to prevent, recognize and respond to violence against children. Efforts are also being made to integrate child protection in residential schools, monasteries and nunneries where children live and learn, to ensure that children who are particularly vulnerable, because they are living outside of parental care, are not overlooked.

Two children interact at a school in India

Unfortunately, a majority of low- and middle-income countries currently lack long-term programmes for involving the social service workforce in schools, whether that be as school social workers or school counsellors. In such countries, there is a need to advocate for the social service workforce to become integrated within schools, and for the key role that the social service workforce can play in schools to be recognized by ministries of education. Ministries of social welfare and ministries of education also need to work together to ensure the integration of the workforce within education. They should combine their efforts to ensure that social service workers’ role in schools is formalized and reinforced through   appropriate training, development of professional standards, and ensuring workers in these roles are licensed or certified. Legislation is also needed that defines and mandates the role of the social service workforce in schools.

Where there are few if any formal professional development programs for the social service workforce, and so a shortage of qualified social workers, social pedagogues of psychologists, staff or volunteers can be equipped to take on para professional social service roles in schools, through suitable on the job training and supervision. This can help build capacity for meeting students’ social and emotional needs and preventing violence in schools. The ‘barefoot social worker model’ introduced in China, is one such example, in which local community members with a basic level of education and knowledge of social work and child protection, are trained and supported to provide essential, community-based child welfare services.


Read the technical note for the full scope of services that the social service workforce, if sufficiently resourced and supported, can provide working in or with schools, and which school administrators and leaders need to support in order to more effectively address child protection concerns. 

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School social workers’ crucial role in protecting children and their right to education

A social worker speaks with children at a school

Written by Marion Huxtable, Coordinator of the International Network for School Social Work

As coordinator of the International Network for School Social Work I have been keeping track since 1992 of how school social workers protect schoolchildren and their rights. 

Global goals for education are captured in UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 of the 2030 agenda. The last decade saw accelerated progress especially in primary education and gender equity. However in many countries there are disadvantaged groups of children who lag behind. This has dramatically increased since 2020 through the impact of the pandemic. By April 2020, 188 countries had closed schools, affecting 91% of total enrolled learners. Many children could not participate in distance learning and so dropped out of school completely. As schools started to re-open, it is clear that some, especially girls, have not returned to school.

There are around 50 countries where social workers are part of the school system. In these contexts, terms equivalent to school social worker and education social worker are used in many languages as job titles. While school social work is well established in countries in Western Europe and the United States, plus a few Asian and African countries, the approach is now being applied in a wider range of Asian countries, and other countries in Africa, Central and South America have started to locate social workers in schools.

School social workers work as part of the school team to reach children and families and provide the help needed. Using basic social work methods, school social work adapts to the local culture. Examples include a social worker at a village school in Laos organizing construction of toilets and gardens along with many other programs, and, in Burundi, social service workers rescuing and providing education for the youngest and most neglected children. During the pandemic school social workers everywhere reached out to children and families in creative ways to support mental health and engagement with school.

Schools need help to deal with schoolchildren’s complex problems, including the ramifications of poverty, the impact of civil strife, family problems and disabilities that impede learning. Since the pandemic, emotional and behavioral problems in schools have increased and many children have dropped out. School social workers help address all these challenges.

It is time for a deeper look at the role schools could play in protecting children and their education, and reaching the SDG 4.  UNICEF, the World Bank and UNESCO, in their report Recovering Education in 2021, call for “tailored services needed to meet learning, health, psychosocial  wellbeing and other needs”. School social work is a crucial part of this. We must foster the political will in all sectors including government, international organizations, education ministries and universities to fund, determine needs, and develop national plans to train and place social workers in schools. This commitment is needed to help schools become the safe place where children want to learn and their families want them to be. 

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Three Ways to Care for Children Orphaned by COVID-19

This blog was written by Lanre Williams-Ayedun, Senior Vice-President of International Programs at World Relief, and originally published by Christianity Today’s The Better Samaritan.

A boy is held during COVID-19.

We are coming upon the two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Since that time, over 415 million people have been infected and nearly 6 million have died from COVID-19. This does not include the untold numbers of people who have died from secondary factors caused by COVID-19 — extreme poverty, chronic food insecurity, an inability to flee violence and a lack of access to healthcare and other social services.

Countless millions of people have lost loved ones and are left grieving even as they fight to survive. In 2020, 1.2 million children lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19. That number has drastically increased. Every 6 seconds, a child loses a parent or caregiver as a direct result of COVID-19. According to the latest Lancet Report, from April 30 to October 31, 2021, 5.2 million children lost a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19.

Note the dates. What the research shows is a devastating trend: The number of children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood and caregiver death increased 90 percent in a 6-month timespan that came well over a year into when COVID-19 was declared a global emergency.

According to the Global COVID-19 Orphanhood Crisis report, it took 10 years for 5 million children to be orphaned due to AIDS, but it has taken just two years for 5 million children to be orphaned due to COVID-19. We begin to get a picture of the magnitude of this pandemic on our world’s most vulnerable.

Even as cases of COVID-19 and its variants begin to decrease in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, the impact on our world’s most vulnerable has hit record levels. The compounded effects of COVID-19 have had devastating consequences, and we need to turn to meet those most impacted. As we seek to pivot back to our daily lives, we must not leave behind those who are now burdened with extra layers of challenges that affect their ability to survive and thrive.

Empowering families and caregivers of orphaned children.

This begins with recognizing that most children who have lost a parent or caregiver often have other family members or support systems that can step in to help. This is almost always preferable to institutionalization and orphanages.

Unfortunately, many of those potential caregivers are stretched beyond their capabilities due to COVID-19-induced or exacerbated challenges that demand their attention. These include an increase in extreme poverty; environmental disasters and food insecurity due to climate change; interpersonal and social violence and mental health challenges and more.

The best way to care for these children is to empower their families and caregivers with economic, social, emotional and disease prevention support so they care for themselves and the children who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Let me suggest three ways churches and NGOs can do this:

First, tangibly set families and caregivers up for success.

One of the greatest needs many of these families have is economic stability. For many, COVID-19 has decimated their income and with the inclusion of children who have lost a caregiver, increased the number of mouths to feed. In fact, extreme poverty is a major concern in communities with many children who are orphaned. Globally, due to COVID, roughly 97 million more people are living on less than $1.90 a day, increasing the global poverty rate from 7.8 to 9.1 percent. Another 163 million more are living on less than $5.50 a day.

These families need an infusion of funds, financial literacy and savings support, and economic development training to build/rebuild livelihoods lost during the pandemic.

Second, care for the emotional and psychosocial needs of families, caregivers, and children dealing with grief, loss, and uncertainty.

The emotional strain that COVID-19 has caused will have reverberating effects years down the road. Long after financial stability has been achieved, the scars of these years will still be visible, and in some cases, the underlying wounds will still need to heal. Offering community and support services that promote wholeness are necessary in order for true hope to take root. This can be through trained community and faith leaders who can come alongside families to promote mental health and violence prevention services, parenting classes, school attendance and provide referrals for additional services as needed.

Just as Dr. Charles Nelson, Professor of Pediatrics and Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, describes the children orphaned by COVID-19 as a “hidden cost of the pandemic,” so, too, are there other hidden costs. One is the cost of emotional and mental wounds silenced by more visible, outward scars. As we seek to meet the needs of these more vulnerable children and families, we must take a whole-person approach toward healing.

Finally, passionately pursue life through vaccine equality.

Many of these children and caregivers have seen more death and sadness than any person ought to. We must, therefore, fight for life, and the first step in doing this is to advocate for global vaccine equality and prioritize vaccine education and access. Currently, however, many factors are stalling efforts to get the most vulnerable the preventative care they need: misinformation about the vaccine, general mistrust of healthcare workers/healthcare, fear of getting sick in crowded health centers, various lockdowns and hard-to-access vaccination sites.

Research shows that just 4.2 percent of people in low-income countries have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and across Africa, only 6.3 percent of people are fully vaccinated. Our first priority needs to be making it more likely that death due to COVID-19 will become less normative for these children and caregivers, and that, in turn, hope can begin to grow in each person’s heart individually and in the new family unit together.

Organizations like World Relief are coordinating with governments to make vaccines available to vulnerable populations and equipping faith leaders with accurate information that they are using to promote vaccine confidence and acceptance among their congregations.

The power of a loving and safe family is unmatched. As we support the children orphaned by COVID-19 and their remaining caregivers, we must do so with a whole-person, whole-family approach that affirms the critical role of the larger community in supporting these vulnerable families

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Advocates Build Support for the Social Service Workforce During Social Service Workforce Week

Social Service Workforce Week 2021 image

From 25-29 October, organizations and individuals across the globe brought attention to the essential role of the social service workforce in emergency preparedness and response during Social Service Workforce Week. Every year, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance hosts the week to bring attention to and build support for the social service workforce as well as to raise awareness about promising workforce strengthening efforts around the world.  With the world experiencing more protracted conflicts, more frequent climate-related disasters and more severe and widespread disease outbreaks, most notably the current COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s theme focused on the crucial, but often unrecognized, role social service workers play in helping people and communities prepare, adapt and respond to emergencies.  

Throughout the week, the Alliance and partners shared content and resources that explored how the role of the social service workforce has changed, and how social service workers have adapted, as emergencies have become more frequent and widespread. Heather Boetto, developer of the transformative ecosocial work model, discussed the important role of social workers in disaster preparedness. Heather noted the need for social workers to be trained in and to develop disaster preparedness and resilience in all aspects of their practice. She also emphasized the need to advocate for the role of social workers in climate issues. Specifically, she noted, “Preparing and responding to disasters alone isn’t going to resolve the underlying problems associated with human activities that cause climate change and subsequent increases in disaster events.”

Lavender Ondere furthered this notion in her blog focused on the role of the social service workforce in building resilience to climate-related shocks in northern KenyaShe highlighted that in communities in northern Kenya, which are largely pastoral and deal with climate change on a daily basis, the social service workforce has become the community’s voice for advocacy efforts focused on the development of resources to address climate-related risks and the development of climate-related policies at the local and national levels. 

Content also focused on the crucial role of community level social service workers, and volunteers, in humanitarian contexts and throughout the pandemic.  Glynis Clacherty, lead researcher on the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action's Community Engagement in Case Management project told the story of Nyarueni, a community volunteer working on child protection at a refugee camp in EthiopiaClacherty highlighted how volunteers such as Nyarueni serve a critical role in humanitarian settings but also experience great risks with limited support, noting a number of resources the project is working on to ensure the ethical engagement of such volunteers.  Lee Henley, Executive Director of Children’s Future International, aorganization in a rural region of Cambodia, discussed how their community level social workers have had to adapt their service delivery over the course of the pandemic. He noted how, when the collapse of tourism in the region caused food insecurity to become a major concern, workers shifted from delivering community-based training on effective handwashing and symptom recognition to providing emergency food and economic stimulus packages to generate income and promote self-sufficiency. Henley also highlighted the importance of preparing for unanticipated emergencies, which includes critically reviewing internet availability in the community to ensure effective communication during and immediately follow a disaster event.  

Throughout the week, profiles of social service workers dedicated to ensuring the well-being of families and communities across the globe were also shared by the Alliance and others. This included Orlando Monteiroa volunteer case worker in Mozambique, who identifies cases of vulnerable children, assesses their needs, develops case management plans, and provides basic psychosocial support. This also included Mónica Mariela Mayorga Ayala, a child protection and care systems strengthening coordinator in Guatemalawho works to advise government institutions on best practices aimed at sustainable and safe family reunification. 

Missed the weeklong campaignAll content can be found here. The Alliance also urges you to continue to advocate for the importance of the social service workforce to donors and policymakers, media and the general public, and other social service professionals using their key advocacy messages.  

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Building Resilience to Climate-Related Shocks in Northern Kenya

Women in Kenya carries waterBy Lavender Ondere, technical specialist on natural resource management for World Vision’s Integrated Management of Natural Resources for Resilience in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (IMARA) project

To some, climate change is just a theory, but working with the most vulnerable communities in the most fragile contexts in Kenya, I have come to acknowledge the reality of climate change and its associated risks.

Communities in northern Kenya, which are largely pastoral, deal with climate change on a daily basis. The pastoral systems face increasingly frequent and severe droughts and floods, erratic rainfall and higher than average temperatures, negatively impacting the resources that provide livelihoods to most households. This has led to high poverty rates and exacerbated violent conflict among the communities, with many women and children being killed, displaced and/or raped. Increased food insecurity has also caused many households to resort to retrogressive cultural practices—such as child marriage, child labor, child prostitution and female genital mutilation—as children have been left to adapt and fend for themselves. Loss of the indigenous biodiversity, which provides a natural support system for maintaining a multi-functional landscape, is also leaving the area move vulnerable to climate-related disasters.

This issue has called the social service workforce and the community to action, with climate adaptation and resilience becoming a top priority. This has been done by working on initiatives that support communities in developing resilience to climate change-related shocks. These initiatives focus on land and forest restoration, improved natural resource management, diversification of livelihoods through the adoption of alternative natural resources, and the development of community-based disaster risk reduction action plans.

Through the initiatives, communities have adopted regreening initiatives, such as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), which provides a win-win situation in restoration of livelihoods and landscapes. FMNR is a simple and low-cost nature-based solution that rapidly restores degraded land and ecosystems by unlocking the restorative potential of Kenya’s underground forests. FMNR has worked well especially for women providing them with basic ecosystem services such a firewood, medicine and feeds/pasture for their livestock. 

The adoption of alternative livelihoods away from pastoralism (such as bee keeping, chicken farming, and gum and resin harvesting), coupled with the development of value chains with linkages to the formal markets, has led to improved economic and social status for otherwise vulnerable community members. With multiple income streams, families can buy food and other basics for their children and families, irrespective of the weather patterns.

The role of the social service workforce has been critical in each of these initiatives. They have trained communities on innovative ways of coping with climate change and have helped communities develop disaster risk reduction plans. They have helped communities mobilize resources to allow them to build back better after the disasters. They have created community awareness of climate change issues and built the capacity of the local community to ensure the sustainability of the programs they run. Lastly, the social service workforce has become the community’s voice for advocacy efforts focused on the development of resources to address climate-related risks and the development of climate-related policies at the local and national levels.  

Through these initiatives, I have witnessed communities transform their mindsets on natural resource management and use as well as improve their resilience to climate-change-related shocks. This is the motivation I need to continue contributing to the fight against climate change and building community resilience.

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Delivering Effective Social Work Services During COVID-19: Lessons from a Cambodian NGO

A CFI social work talks with a child during COVID-19Delivering effective social work services in communities during a public health emergency is challenging. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 presented such a challenge to Children’s Future International (CFI), a non-governmental organization (NGO), in Cambodia. CFI is situated in a rural region outside the city of Battambang, Cambodia. As a social work organization, its primary focus is on child protection and supporting family cohesion and well-being. With the rapid onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, the organization was faced with a range of challenges, as well as opportunities for new learning on how best to deliver services.

The Alliance with Lee Henley, Executive Director of CFI, to discuss how the organization adapted its service delivery during the pandemic, what insights he gained from a staff survey his organization completed on the experiences of social workers during the pandemic and what implications the pandemic might have on future practice.

You can read more about CFI's experiences during the pandemic in a recent article published by the British Journal for Social Work, titled Social Work in the Time of COVID-19: A Case Study from the Global South.

Q: Tell us more about Children’s Future International. What is the goal and purpose of the organization? What communities do you serve?

CFI’s aim is to break the poverty cycle by offering a range of child protection, community development and supplementary education services in the resource-deprived region of Ek Phnom, Cambodia. The communities we serve typically have experienced poverty, malnutrition, unsafe  migration, exploitative labour practices, physical and sexual abuse, and secondary PTSD (generational) from the Khmer Rouge genocide. While we originally started out by providing supplementary education and residential care services, overtime we realized better outcomes could be achieved if children were cared for in family-based settings. Since 2016, our social work model has focused on supporting children to safely live within families in the community.

All of CFI’s direct practice is delivered by Khmer nationals. Currently, we have 40 Khmer and two international staff employed. As in most community-based NGOs in Cambodia, our social workers’ tasks are varied and include child protection, assessment, intervention, family strengthening, prevention of child/family separation and addressing violence against children.

A social worker speaks with a family in Cambodia.

Q: Tell us about the social work context in Cambodia. What are some of the biggest issues or challenges? How does CFI address these challenges?

In Cambodia, NGOs have for many years performed important functions, delivering community-based programs in areas confronted by issues such as poor infrastructure and developing health and social systems. In fact, Cambodia is second only to Rwanda in the number of NGOs per capita, with approximately one active NGO for every 10,000 Cambodians. These NGOs face many competing challenges such as unequal distribution of services and a social care workforce which remains inexperienced and underqualified. Social work training is still in a developmental phase in Cambodia, with the first-degree course having commenced in 2008, meaning there are few qualified social workers working in villages and practice is varied. However, work is underway to strengthen and improve systems, of note is the recently released ‘Guidelines on basic competencies for the social workforce in Cambodia’.

While all of CFI’s social workers hold degrees in a range of disciplines none hold social work qualifications. Nevertheless, we are committed to applying social work theoretical approaches to practice and our social workers receive annual training from a licensed trainer in a variety of approaches and tools. Additionally, all social workers receive ongoing professional development to ensure social work approaches are employed appropriately within the context of the local environment.

Q: How did COVID-19 exacerbate issues in the communities you serve?

The onset of COVID-19 significantly added to the challenges faced by many local families. With the collapse of tourism, people suddenly found themselves unemployed and thus further in debt. This exacerbated existing problems as before COVID-19 many families required loans of both food and finances to survive. Additionally, significant numbers of Khmer migrated back across the Thai border after COVID-19 became apparent in Thailand. Consequently, not only did many families lose incomes from remittances but they also had more people to feed and accommodate.

Q: How did CFI adapt or adjust its approach to service delivery with the onset of COVID-19?

CFI social workers started working in an educative way regarding COVID-19—delivering community-based training focused on effective handwashing, symptom recognition and physical distancing for community members while also disseminating personal protective equipment and training local authorities in how to prioritize families of the highest need—but this approach soon needed to be changed. The collapse of tourism significantly contributed to the increase in poverty and hardship for many local families and our workers had to be flexible in identifying the most pressing challenges and responding to them. For example, when food insecurity became a major concern, our workers provided support to a significant proportion of the local population through the provision of emergency food and economic stimulus packages to generate income and promote self-sufficiency. As an organization, we also modified our traditional case management approaches to ensure our staff remained safe. Starting in March 2020, all our staff were directed to work remotely from the office but were supported to make  assessments as to the safety of visiting high-risk families in the community. They would call ahead to check the health and well-being of families, maintained distance, wore disposable face masks and observed good hand hygiene.

With the influx of returning migrants, our workers also began to support these families. We delivered emergency supplies to families in highest need, conducted safe migration workshops in an attempt to reduce migration risks, and delivered income generation packages and small business workshops to prevent dependency.

A social worker speaks with a family in Cambodia.Q: CFI completed an internal audit to assess how staff were responding to the challenges of the virus as well as to increase the safety of its staff.  What were some of the biggest findings from the audit?

This was a challenging time both personally and professionally for all staff. From the onset of the pandemic, there was a clear expectation within the local community and the local authority that CFI would take a lead role in coordinating activities and supporting communities. Although our social workers were willing to be engaged in this manner, many had no prior experience or training to help them navigate these new responsibilities. From the audit we were able to learn the key challenges our staff were facing as well as what allowed them to continue to properly serve the community.

In terms of challenges, our social workers emphasized that they felt challenged to get the balance right between their health and child protection and often spent longer than usual identifying risk and need once COVID-19 had occurred. They also greatly emphasized the challenge of delivering services remotely. Home-based Wi-Fi is challenging and despite attempts to resolve (including purchasing staff modems and allocated additional funds for connectivity) many challenges remained. Some staff experienced issues with using the online case management system from home, which occasionally delayed their ability to provide services and others noted that it was difficult to maintain relationships with people they only contacted by phone.

In terms of what allowed our staff to continue to operate effectively, social workers noted established case management and organizational structures to be beneficial. For example, our regular intake and exit meetings as well as formal supervision support continued online and practicing with recognized guidelines and structures provided stability.  Staff also noted the importance of being able to balance their own family’s safety, while continuing to offer face-to-face interactions to those most in need in a safe manner. School closures meant children were often not being seen outside of their family unit, which increased the risk of families using their children as labour or for trafficking, meaning children at the highest risk still needed to be visited in person. In fact, this accounted for nearly half of the social workers’ caseloads.

Our social workers also noted that working directly with local authorities increased the effectiveness of keeping children safe and having established relationships with the authorities was vital for ensuring child safety, as it transferred some skills to local authorities who had better access to more people; and ensured all parties were aware that decision-making powers rest with families and local authorities, not with CFI.

Q: What do you think can be learned from your experience as an organization as well as from the experiences of your workers, to ensure responsiveness to future disaster events?

Overall CFI has, so far, weathered the storm of COVID-19 well. While COVID-19 continues to have a significant impact on CFI’s social work practice, adapting has resulted in positive changes in practice and allowed for significant learning.

Overall, CFI remains mindful of maintaining a focus on our core responsibilities, despite some work becoming redirected. This is vital in a disaster event to ensure that children remain safe. Partnership, particularly with local authorities, is also essential, as it ensures alignment and cohesion with community responses and national frameworks and provides a platform for challenging inequitable distribution of goods and services and unsuitable political decisions.

Social work practice approaches require consideration in a disaster situation. Following established guidance but allowing for adaptations can reduce workers concern and enable social workers to be able to assess and identify the impact on individuals and communities, and do so in a way that allows case management approaches to be reviewed and changed where needed. Developing strong case management pathways before a disaster ensures these can be easily adapted when required and allows for reliability and familiarity when managing the unpredictability of a disaster. 

Preparation for unanticipated disaster events should also be undertaken. A diversified funding stream allows NGOs not to be reliant on single sources, which can become compromised during a disaster. Also, critically reviewing internet availability is required to ensure effective communication can be more likely immediately following a disaster event.

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Developing Standard Operating Procedures for Child Protection Case Management in Humanitarian Settings

Image of worker assisting family in SyriaBy Crystal Stewart, International Rescue Committee, and Anneloes Koehorst, UNICEF, co-leads of the Case Management Task Force under the Alliance for Child Protection In Humanitarian Action

A united approach to case management promotes equity of service, improved quality and enables better coordination between agencies to provide critical and timely support to vulnerable children and their caregivers. This approach aligns with Standard 1 of the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action: “Relevant and responsible authorities, humanitarian agencies, civil society organizations and representatives of affected populations coordinate their child protection efforts in order to ensure full, efficient and timely response”.
In 2019, the global Case Management Task Force (CMTF) under the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action embarked on a process to create guidelines on how to develop interagency Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for child protection case management in humanitarian settings. While many achievements had been made on a country by country basis, the scope and quality of the SOPs varied widely, thus affecting how they were applied in practice. After receiving a multitude of requests from emergency contexts to share sample case management SOPs and a standard process, the CMTF decided to come together to develop practical guidance and a template SOP to support local, international and governmental child protection agencies to harmonize and standardize case management services for at-risk children. 
One recent example of how the global SOP guidance documents have been used to coordinate and improve the child protection case management system is in Venezuela. In 2020, as a result of the widespread economic crisis, the government and various child protection organizations joined forces to strengthen the social service workforce and standardize case management services across the country. Nationwide consultations were held to assess case management practices in every region. This included reviewing case management forms, eligibility criteria, service mapping, referral mechanisms, information sharing, data protection protocols and staff capacity building plans. It also covered important processes to harmonize tools for safe referrals, transfers, family support and reunification, analysis and reporting. The SOPs are currently in their final stage of development and are nearly ready for national approval. This interagency collaboration between government and humanitarian actors demonstrates how protective systems for children can be transformed during a humanitarian crisis.

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My name is Nyarueni

By Glynis Clacherty, lead researcher on the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action's Community Engagement in Case Management project. 

Picture of Nyarueni

"My name is Nyarueni; I am 43 years old. When I was a child, I used to dream that one day I [would] become an educated and independent woman who would work for a brighter future for all women and girls in my community. I used to think that every dream of mine was reachable, until I experienced the chaos of the civil war back in my country, South Sudan.
I never imagined I would end up this waybeing uneducated and all my dreams destroyed by things which were out of my control. I lost my hope and I gave up on my dream. It was all gone as a blink of an eye. I was forced to get married when I was only 17 years old, but I wasn’t angry with the decision of my parents because I had already lost my hope and at that time, “surviving” was all I was thinking about.
After a few years, I came to this refugee camp in Ethiopia. I looked at the situation of the children here, and I decided to step forward. I wished for them to live in a protected environment so that they can dream big and become successful and not lose their hope like I did. I have been working voluntarily as a child protection committee chairperson for the past three and [a] half years. I serve the children now. I facilitate meetings with the committee and develop action plans about what to accomplish in a certain time period. I conduct awareness raising and mobilization activities within communities about child protection concerns, [and the] available services to children with protection risks and child rights. I also do home visits and assist caseworkers in identifying children with protection risks, exploring alternative childcare options, and tracing parents or relatives of children.
I sometimes come to the child friendly spaces and tell resilience building stories to the children. I am proud that I am now giving children a chance to see a brighter future. It is never too late.”
Community volunteers, such as Nyarueni, are an integral part of preventing and responding to cases of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of children in humanitarian settings. They have a deep understanding of their communities, and help to identify children who are at-risk, have experienced harm, or have been separated from their family. 

Nyarueni shared her story, along with other child protection volunteers from all over the world, as part of a project, led by the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, focused on promoting evidence-based best practices for the use of community volunteers in child protection case management in humanitarian settings.
Working on the project, our team has been overcome with a mix of admiration and awe for these volunteers. We feel proud to be colleagues with people who offer their hearts and minds, and often their money, to help children in their communities. We have learned how volunteers—who may not be highly educated—are able to incorporate child protection practices into contexts where social norms and the nature of humanitarian emergencies work directly against them. We have seen how volunteers are a bridge to services for children and their families.
Alongside this pride, though, we have also felt sadness. While volunteers experience many positives from their work, they also experience risks. Our research has showed that many projects engage community volunteers without carefully thinking through their roles and responsibilities.

We have heard stories of volunteers expected to work long hours, leaving no time for them to earn an income for their families, and of volunteers unable to sleep because they were worrying about handling high-risk cases without the support of experienced caseworkers. We also heard stories of volunteers being threatened by community members who assumed they were to be given certain items, such as food, from the volunteer because the role of the volunteers had not been properly communicated to the community.

The contrast between the commitment of our volunteer colleagues and the reality of what they often experience, has turned us into fierce advocates for the ethical engagement of volunteers. Our hope is that the key resources we have developed through the projectincluding advocacy materials for child protection organizations, governments, donors and policy makers, and guidance, tools and trainings for program designers and managerswill support this change. 

Please visit the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action website to access all resources associated with this project (including a study report and brief, a policy brief and a poster highlighting seven best practices for volunteer engagement). A toolkit, which includes guidance on ethically engaging community volunteers, as well as a manual for training volunteers in low-resource humanitarian settings, will also be available next year. 

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The Role of Social Service Workers in Disaster Preparedness

Image of a women in Uganda

A Q&A with Heather Boetto, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Charles Sturt University

Heather Boetto is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Charles Sturt University and has also worked in the human services sector as a practitioner for over 10 years in various fields, including disability, child and family welfare, and school social work. Her research focuses on environmental social work, also known as ‘ecosocial work’ and ‘green social work’. She was awarded the University Medal in 2017 for her PhD, which culminated in the development of a ‘transformative ecosocial work model’ for practice. The Alliance recently spoke with Heather about her research focused on social work and disaster preparedness.

Question: Please tell us a bit about your background and the research you have done on social work and disaster preparedness.

I developed a love of nature as young farm girl growing up in regional Australia. I relished the freedom of climbing trees, caring for animals and experimenting with plants and bugs.  My parents cared for the land and stock on our farm as a matter of importance and they valued the results of their labours. Not to romanticise my childhood though, I also experienced drought, floods, bushfires, and storms.  I observed my family’s sheep suffer during times of drought and I experienced the panic of bushfire. These experiences added to the awe and respect that I developed for the natural environment. 

My childhood experience was the basis for my career in social work. As a practitioner, I was particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate on human wellbeing. I found a like-minded social worker when I entered academia, and she nurtured my interest and encouraged me to focus on environmental social work (or ‘ecoSocial work’) – which was a bit marginal in those days. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve been learning about the importance of integrating disaster practice into social work. I’m partial to participatory types of research, and so I’ve been collaborating with practitioners, community service organisations and local emergency services to explore disaster preparedness and more broadly, an environmental approach to practice.

Question: While it is known that social workers play a key role in disaster response, your research brings to light that social workers should also play a key role in disaster preparedness. Why do you think it is important that social workers have a role in disaster preparedness?

While disasters are not new phenomena, we’ve had a real onslaught of disaster events worldwide of late. All of us have been impacted in some way, shape or form, whether directly or indirectly. The reason why disaster preparedness is so important is because the level of resilience in a community or group determines the level of impact that a disaster event will have. We know that marginalised groups find it more difficult to prepare for a disaster event, to respond to a disaster event, and to recover from a disaster event, and so developing disaster preparedness addresses issues of social and environmental injustice.

Question: Please elaborate on what role social workers may already play in disaster preparedness as well as what roles they may need to take on in the future?

To be honest, we need to do much more! The role social workers play in disaster preparedness is seriously lacking…but we’re getting better. Our role is to develop disaster preparedness and resilience in all aspects of our practice – within our organisations, with our staff and volunteers, with service users, and our local communities. We also need to advocate for the role that social workers play in climate issues. Preparing and responding to disasters alone isn’t going to resolve the underlying problems associated with human activities that cause climate change and subsequent increases in disaster events.

Question: How can we ensure that social workers are prepared/trained to take on such roles?

I believe all social workers should receive training in disaster practice as a core part of professional education – and not just in trauma counselling. Most people identify with the response and recovery phases of disasters, and yet, the level to which a community or group is prepared for disaster events indicates their capacity to respond and recover. Given the inequitable impact of disasters on marginalised groups, preparedness is intrinsically linked to social and environmental justice outcomes.

Question: What contextual factors might limit a social worker’s ability to effectively engage in disaster practice and how can they mitigate such factors?

The most common barriers practitioners talk to me about are around organisational issues. In Australia, many practitioners are employed by organisations where disaster practice is not seen as core business. Short-term funding contracts usually define daily activities and restrict practitioners’ capacity for holistic, multidimensional approaches to practice. Of course, this system is underpinned by neoliberalism, which is also at the heart of the global environmental climate crisis. This is not a coincidence!

How can we address barriers to disaster practice? Social workers (and all social service workers!) are the most creative, skilled, and energizing people I know. I’ve worked with practitioners to integrate environmental approaches into practice, and their advice is to – start small, be creative, and when possible, be bold!