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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!

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Recognizing the Key Role of Social Service Workers in Emergency Preparedness and Response

Workers deliver food supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Hugh Salmon, Director of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance

Escalating conflicts leading to internal displacement and migration, the increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters and a global pandemic have led to rapid increases in the numbers of people and communities in need of emergency social assistance and social work support over the past few years. These crises have compounded existing problems of persistent poverty, socio-economic inequality and social injustice, and have disproportionately impacted women and children.

Social service workers play a crucial, but often unrecognized role, in helping people and communities prepare, adapt and respond to such emergencies and crises. Social service workers have the skills, knowledge and commitment to identify, reach, assess and engage with the most marginalized members of society. These include not only those facing social, economic or health disadvantages, but also those experiencing or fleeing ethnic or racial discrimination and oppression, homelessness, war or civil conflict, natural disasters or the effects of climate change.

To address these challenges, the social service workers are well placed and equipped to assess needs and coordinate the necessary services from different sectors. They work to promote healthy coping and recovery after trauma, displacement or loss of livelihood as well as directly provide support and interventions to respond to the social impacts of emergencies. As shown during COVID-19, and summarized in our State of the Social Service Workforce Report, these impacts can be wide ranging, including escalating  family poverty, violence against children, neglect and abuse of children and other vulnerable individuals, gender-based violence, child labour and child marriage.

Social service workers not only help individuals, families and communities to recover from crises and disasters, they also help them build their resilience to withstand future shocks, building on their strengths and resources to prepare and adapt so as to reduce their risk of exposure and the potential impact of future adverse events.

So, this year, for Social Service Workforce Week, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing awareness of the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, we are seeking to recognize and advocate for the essential role of the social service workforce in disaster and emergency preparedness and response.

We invite you to join us in this weeklong campaign. On day 2, we will be examining the role of social service workers within disaster and emergency preparedness, particularly in developing resilience and capacity to cope with future crises. On day 3, we will look at the role of community level social service workers, and volunteers in particular, in humanitarian contexts. On day 4, we will hear about the vital role social service workers have played in responding and adapting to COVID-19 and what can be learned for future emergencies. Finally, on day 5 we will share examples of how the workforce can play a critical role in helping communities mitigate the impacts of climate change.   

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Localizing volunteer support in Kyrgyzstan during the pandemic

Man delivers food to an elderly women.In many contexts, volunteers have been critical for continuing social service delivery throughout the pandemic. Volunteers have increasingly been engaged to match the greater number of individuals and families in need, especially when funding constraints have prevented recruitment of more paid staff. They have also been an important way of reaching the most remote or marginalized communities, when restrictions on movement have prevented professional social service workers from doing so.

Babushka Adoption Foundation works to alleviate poverty and loneliness for older people in Kyrgyzstan. Their beneficiaries live alone and receive pensions of less than about $74 a month. Babushka Adoption provides in-kind support, self-help groups and home care help, as well as the opportunity for individual sponsors to “adopt” a babushka or dedushka (literally, grandmother or grandfather) by providing personal connection and financial aid.

When the government implemented a national lockdown in response to COVID-19, transportation became extremely restricted, with driving privileges limited to police and doctors. This created an immense barrier to Babushka Adoption’s work, as staff could no longer  deliver services, including cash, to beneficiaries. To adapt, the organization recruited volunteers via social media and, after assessing the needs of each beneficiary, shared that information with the newly expanded network. These volunteers brought food, financial aid and medical supplies to beneficiaries within 1.5 kilometres of their location, thus creating a more localized delivery method that could work despite the transportation limitations of the lockdown.

Man delivers food to an elderly women.

Recognizing the impacts of the pandemic, including social isolation, particularly on older individuals living alone, Babushka Adoption also provided psychological counselling over the phone to 280 elderly people, including some who had not previously been beneficiaries of their service. The organization recruited volunteer psychologists from local universities to help meet this growing demand.

Babushka Adoption has recognized the immense contribution of its volunteer network, including local students, and has systematized its process of working with volunteers to make it more sustainable. They developed a new written code outlining the responsibility of all volunteers, as well as the organization’s responsibilities to them, including training and transportation support outside of working hours. By formalizing the code in this way, Babushka Adoption hopes to create deeper ties to its volunteers to maintain relationships beyond the current crisis, provide guidance for their work and create a lasting volunteer system that can be used not only in the event of a future crisis, but to make the organization’s day-to-day work on behalf of elderly people more effective.

This case study and others can be found in our State of the Social Service Workforce Report 2020: Responding, Adapting and Innovating During COVID-19, and Beyond. Learn more about the role of volunteers during the pandemic and see how other organizations have adapted their service delivery.

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Participants from Across the Globe Take Part in Global Conversation Event

On 15th September 2021, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance and Children and Families Across Borders co-hosted The social service workforce in and beyond the pandemic: A global conversation on adaptation, innovation and the fight for social justice. 

Attendee pollOver 260 participants from across the globe joined the virtual event to discuss the biggest issues facing the social service workforce. Participants stemmed from a broad range of roles and experiences—including social service practitioners, academics, students, policy makers and advocates—and had the unique opportunity to come together to discuss experiences and insights related to the impact of the pandemic on social service practice, education and training as well as on the role of the social service workforce in social justice. 

The event kicked off with opening remarks from Dr. Kathryn Wehrmann, Global Social Service Workforce Alliance Steering Committee Chair, followed by an overview of lessons learned from the Alliance's State of the Social Service Workforce Report 2020 by Global Social Service Workforce Alliance Director, Hugh Salmon. The event continued with three sessions, during which were placed into randomly assigned breakout rooms to discuss their experiences and insights with other participants from across the globe. Participants engaged in further discussion with one another by placing their key insights from their session into an interactive discussion platform, called Slido. 

Session 1: Social service workforce practice in and beyond the pandemic

Dr. Heather Modlin, CEO with Amal Youth and Family Centre facilitated the first session on social service workforce practice in and beyond the pandemic. Breakout room conversations varied widely but key themes that emerged were around resilience and innovation. Dr. Modlin noted, "one of the things that stuck out from the breakout rooms were comments around having to go to work when half of your colleagues were sick with COVID.” She also highlighted comments from the breakout rooms around the difficulty of engaging and showing empathy while wearing a mask and shield everyday.

Other comments that emerged from the Slido forum included:

  • “In South Africa we had challenges with students and community members not having equal access to internet or devices.  So the digital divide was highlighted.”
  • “[Personal protetive equipment] presented several problems - not only wearing it for long periods, but also creating barriers affecting non-verbal communication and difficulties for those with hearing impairments.”
  • “[Social workers] not prioritized for vaccination.”
  • “Ethical use of technology is also a very important aspect that was highlighted in [South Africa].  So our Council for Service Professions had guidelines published during Covid-19 for ethical use of technology.”

Session 2: Social service workforce education and training in and beyond the pandemic

Dr. Prospera Tedam, Professor at United Arab Emirates University, facilitated the second session on social service workforce education and training in and beyond the pandemic. Prospera noted, “one of the key things in the breakout rooms was that there was significant concern about whether practitioners feel ready, able and prepared…after taking a series of online placements.” She also mentioned that she heard concerns about the availability of the internet being equitable across populations as well as concerns about students being able to finance their education in these unprecedented circumstances.

Other comments that emerged from the Slido forum included:

  • “I'm concerned for upcoming social workers and if they will feel as prepared after a 2 year graduate program in social work if they never really had field experience... I'm wondering how schools are actually managing this to prepare the new cohorts of social workers?”
  • “I fear that for some, the inability to secure social work education placements has had major financial repercussions – I heard from a fellow student that having to extend their studies has meant they have to pay additional semesters' tuition.”
  • “The virtual education methods in Colombia have not been effective, they do not recognise the social, cultural and economic context of girls, boys, adolescents and young people, thus increasing the levels of school dropout.”

Session 3: Role of the social service workforce in advancing social justice

Dr. Vishanthie Sewpaul, Emeritus Professor at the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, facilitated the third session on the role of social service workforce in advancing social justice. She noted that during the breakout room discussions she heard themes around the importance of dealing with the root causes of social injustices as well as the importance of empowerment. She further highlighted comments from participants around the exacerbation of the digital divide during the pandemic and how that intensified social injustice, specifically noting that often more vulnerable populations without social protection were stuck in their choices to stay at home and risk starvation or go out and have the possibility of getting COVID-19.

Other comments that emerged from the Slido forum included:

  • “Social work intervention methods, especially group work and community development can play important role in starting social justice initiatives.”
  • “Understanding our own biases could be an important first step to a deeper understanding of entrenched injustices, discrimination at the societal level. How much does social work education/professional development of social service practitioners focus on helping identify our own biases, beliefs?”
  • “Individuals create structures and systems that perpetuate discrimination and injustice that cause poverty, etc... social workers work with people, but typically those impacted by that injustice.  How can we work more with those individuals causing the injustice?”

Missed the event? View the event recordings and PowerPoint presentations. 




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Developing a framework for a strengthened child protection workforce in India

Three children in IndiaIssues of violence, abuse and exploitation—including domestic violence, child marriage, child trafficking, sexual and gender-based violence, child labour, corporal punishment, peer to peer violence, online abuse and mental distress—continue to plague millions of children in India. COVID-19 has further exacerbated such issues, as thousands of children have lost either one or both parents to the virus and the environments in which children grow and develop have been disrupted, increasing their vulnerability and making the effective delivery of child protection services even more critical. Yet, India continues to lack adequate human resource capacity to effectively ensure that children and their families receive quality age sensitive and gender responsive services critical for effectively responding to and preventing issues of violence, abuse and exploitation against/of children.

“The child protection workforce is not new to India, but traditionally it has been perceived as a charitable work where helping poor and vulnerable is considered to be a good karma and which does not need any training. To deliver child protection services, there is a need for a professionally trained workforce with required skills and competencies which involves paid work, this concept is still evolving, and it is relatively new,” explains Sunil Jha, National Coordinator for the Child Protection Workforce Mapping and Capacity Gap Assessment Project being implemented by the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance with support from UNICEF India.

The project aims to map the existing workforce delivering child protection services to suggest concrete measures to enhance their capacity by identifying the gaps and challenges. “One of the foremost challenges is that the proportion of workers hired is quite low compared to the magnitude and scale of the problem which our children face.” Jha continues, “…children and families need long term intervention, consistent personnel support, and a trained workforce.”

In addition to challenges in ensuring a consistent, well-trained workforce, India also faces issues related to a lack of uniformity across states in defining the criteria for appointing a social worker or member of a child protection workforce, inadequate regulation of training institutions and high staff turnover. The high turnover of staff results from the low level of pay and lack of job security, combined with the high risk inherent in the role. Risks include child protection workers facing violence or even death threats when attempting to intervene in issues of human trafficking, child marriage, child labour and domestic abuse. The workforce is often unprotected and poorly supported by the system to face such risks and endure the associated stress.

To address such issues and strengthen the capacity and resilience of the workforce to better protect children, UNICEF India has engaged the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance to map and assess the human resource capacity of the child protection workforce in five states in India—Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Assam and West Bengal. The mapping and gap assessment will determine 1) the number of workers in child protection positions in each district as well as their specific qualifications and experience levels, 2) gaps that exist due to human resource concerns, such as salaries, benefits and protection concerns, and 3) gaps that exist in terms of staff competencies, skills and capacity.

Two girls smile in India

Working in conjunction with a Technical Advisory Group at the national level and State Steering Committees at the state level, with representation from the national and state governments, law enforcement officers, staff of one stop centers, members of civil society organizations and others, the results will be used to build consensus on the strengths and weaknesses of the workforce and priorities upon which to act. This will then translate into an agreed upon framework for strengthening the workforce, with special emphasis on case management, along with training modules on case management for key child protection actors.

While capacity assessments have been undertaken in India in the past, they have historically evaluated child protection systems from the perspective of laws, finances and processes, without taking the human resource component into account.

“This is something new. This is the first time we’re looking at human resources,” Jha explains. “[Previously] we have not assessed social service professionals, who are the important link between provision and the child. We have not assessed the workers’ capacity extensively, specifically around challenges, risks and the benefits and remunerations that they receive in return. We have not asked about motivational factors and the reasons for lack of motivation. So far, we have left [social service professionals] out from the child protection framework which, more often than not, is oriented to address specific issues, rather than to build an entire system that can protect any child at risk or in need. This is the first time we are directly consulting the child protection workforce, and hearing their voices and experiences will be critical to ultimately helping children.”

The project was delayed initially as COVID-19 interventions took priority, but Jha and his team are now in the process of developing assessment/mapping tools starting with an online survey covering all 250 districts across the five states. This will help deepen understanding of the workforce and how it could be strengthened. COVID-19 has worsened issues around child protection and placed a great burden on the child protection workforce, as they have dealt with increased safety concerns and increased caseloads.

Jha emphasizes, “It is now more important than ever that the issues facing the child protection workforce are recognized. Their views need to be heard and considered if we really want to bring about lasting change in the lives of children.”

The team will roll out the mapping and assessment in the coming months as the first steps towards developing a framework for a more strengthened child protection workforce in India.

Stay tuned for more updates as this work advances and results are received.

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Barefoot Social Workers Reach Remote Areas of China with Child Protection Services

by Save the Children China Country Office

Save the Children China Country Office offers special thanks for contributions and support from: Wenhui and his colleagues, Cangyuan County Civil Affairs Bureau, Cangyuan Women’s Federation, Danjia Township in Cangyuan and Yongwu village in Danjia Towship

Wei Wenhui is the first barefoot social worker for Save the Children's child protection project in China. He is known in the Cangyuan Wa Autonomous County in Lincang City, situated within the Yunnan Province, for the unique way he connects with the community members. 

The story of Wenhui and Save the Children began in 2014. The project started as a pilot project in a neighboring township in partnership with the local village committee and the township government. On the recommendation of the village committee, Wenhui became the first child protection barefoot social worker in Cangyuan County. As social work is a relatively new but increasingly recognized profession within China, there is a growing need for community-level workers. 

The title of barefoot social worker is similar to a community-level para professional worker who conducts home visits within remote communities. The title of barefoot doctor is already known within the community for health-related para professional support. 

This community is near the border of Myanmar and so remote that it is not easily accessed to those who don’t live in the immediate area. The social service workforce is under-developed in this province, compared to elsewhere in China, because of its remoteness and scarcity of resources. Child trafficking, children without adult supervision and children left behind when their parents move to larger cities for jobs have created many child protection concerns. Save the Children saw a need for creating a program to recruit and train people living within the immediate community, to make access to child protection services easier as well as ensure trust of the community. 

Wenhui singing to children

In order to promote key messages on child protection in the local area and overcome language barriers, Wenhei created songs and organized dance and drama performances about child protection in both Mandarin Chinese and the local language of Wa. This is because when Save the Children visited the villages within Cangyuan County, the children would naturally sing many different songs as a way to learn and express emotions. Children could easily recall these songs’ messages to know their rights and how to participate in their own protection. Wenhui shared that when he first started this job, the difficulties far exceeded his expectations. The parents were reluctant to provide information when he went to the house to understand the situation of the case. "At that time, no one understood what the child protection was going to do? Everyone would only think that it was their own family affair." Wenhui was often turned away. 

This method is working to build the trust of the community and also children. He said, "I share my personal experiences and anecdotes with the children. On weekdays, I will organize various activities and evening shows. This is a way for me to have more contact and build natural connections with the children.” 

In the summer of 2016, Wei Wenhui planned a three-day event related to the theme of child protection. It included a story exchange for the children and learning activities and lectures for community members. It was well-attended and well-received by the villagers. "It was at this time that I realized the significance of this job-I have helped many parents and children.” 

The concept of protecting children and ending violence is becoming more understood and common practice within the village and Cangyuan County. Many families previously used beatings as punishment but more parents are now using the effective parenting approaches Wei has taught them. 

Wenhui’s sense of mission has also brought changes to his own life. “As a child protection worker, I hope that I can take the lead and be a role model for other parents. I will communicate with my 6-year-old daughter by using some of the parenting approaches I have taught others.”

Wenhui presenting to parentsHis daily work also includes training and supervising the child protection liaisons of various village groups. He supports them in knowing what information needs to be collected and how to effectively communicate with children and their families. They conduct home visits to families on a regular basis to understand the needs of children and the status of child protection. They provide support and assistance to children and families in special difficulties in the village. After the home visit, he holds meetings with the child protection liaisons or village heads to discuss the issues identified and how to follow up. 

Wenhui said: "I like my job very much and I am very happy to make a contribution to child protection. I am the first person in the county to do this job. I think my work has saved many children." 

Due to the success of the program, it continues to grow. There are now five barefoot social workers in the county, and the program offers a career ladder for those involved. As more resources on case management supervision are being mobilized, quality assurance measures continue to increase. And most importantly, the results are visible in the local community as more children and families benefit from increased child protection services and decreased violence. 

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Advocacy and innovation in social service provision in Eastern and Southern Africa

Advocacy and innovation in social service provision in Eastern and Southern Africa - 
‘I am because we are’ - Strengthening social solidarity and global connectedness
*reposted with permission from UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa

By Mohamed M. Malick Fall

Child Helpline staff in Uganda take calls and follow up on reports of violenceToday, as we mark World Social Work Day, we celebrate the important impacts of social service workers on the lives of individuals, families and communities. This year’s theme of World Social Work Day is Ubuntu: ‘I am because we are’ – Strengthening Social Solidarity and Global Connectedness. The sentiment of Ubuntu, originating in South Africa, is one that resonates regionally.

Since the onset of the pandemic, containment measures have led to increased threats to children and women’s safety and well-being including gender-based violence, exploitation, abuse, neglect, and social exclusion. Children have been confined to their homes due to school closures and hidden from public sight. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing have cut children off from the support systems they need, especially when in distress, including school, extended family, community and social services. In this context, we rely on social service workers more than ever.

Despite significant challenges during COVID-19, social service workers for child protection have swiftly adapted how they provide essential services to ensure continuity of quality care. They have committed to maintaining social solidarity and connectedness in the communities where they work during this challenging time.

UNICEF, together with the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, the International Federation of Social Workers, the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, and national associations and other groups, has supported efforts to strengthen the social service workforce for child protection. We have collectively advocated to governments, policy makers and other groups in Eastern and Southern Africa to ensure these workers are considered essential service providers during COVID-19, so they can be allowed to continue their work. To assess vulnerability, identify risks, carry out case management and deliver preventative services to protect all children, these workers frequently need to be able to conduct home and school visits.

In response to an August 2020 survey, 94 per cent of countries in Eastern and Southern Africa indicated that their countries had deemed social service workers as essential service providers, enabling them to continue in-person service delivery when necessary. Some examples of these in-person services included child protection, gender-based violence, mental health and psychosocial support, family re-integration or other home visiting programmes as part of case management and assessment for at-risk or highly vulnerable circumstances.

In Malawi, the National Association of Social Workers and UNICEF worked closely with the Ministry of Population Planning and Social Welfare, related ministries and partner organizations to ensure continuity of social services to vulnerable population groups. In Lesotho among many others in the region, social workers, probation officers and community development officers were among the workers deemed essential. The South African government showed remarkable readiness for social workers, child youth care workers and other social service professionals that were assigned as essential workers under the disaster management legal framework prior to the pandemic. The Council for Social Service Professions with support from UNICEF ensured they were immediately operational and equipped with necessary skills including psychosocial support. Successful advocacy efforts by UNICEF Uganda, the National Association of Social Workers in Uganda and other partners resulted in the reopening of the national Child Helpline and official recognition of social service workers as essential in the early days of the pandemic. As a result, these workers will be prioritized as the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out in Uganda.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted gaps in social service provision in countries all around the world. In many countries throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, the social service workforce already faced budget and staffing constraints that were stretched even further with increasing reports of child protection risks, family separation, gender-based violence, and mental health and psychosocial support needs.

With the support of UNICEF at all levels, progress was made at national and regional level to recognize the essential role of the social service workforce. UNICEF stepped in to assist in service continuity and adaptation of tools to support the workforce in meeting both existing and emerging community needs.

In some countries, this support and advocacy enabled additional funding for hiring more workers, training volunteers or task-shifting workers’ responsibilities to ensure continuity of social services.

For example, in Kenya, with UNICEF support, more than 450 child protection workers from all 47 counties were trained on various topics related to child protection with a lens of COVID-19. The 12 series of webinars provided knowledge on emerging child protection risks and skills required to provide protection and case management services remotely.

The UNICEF Ethiopia Country Office, working with the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth, facilitated the review of the National Case Management Framework tools in response to COVID-19, adding remote case management and remote child protection services provision. Additionally, the Ministry, with financial and technical support from UNICEF, has been facilitating on-the-job training of more than 1,400 ministry officials and deployment of an additional 1,226 social service workers. These workers have been deployed to support case management including family tracing and reunification of returning migrant children and to facilitate COVID-19 prevention messages and the dissemination of mental health and psychosocial support messages at community level.

The Social Workers’ Association of Zambia worked in partnership with UNICEF and the government Ministry of Community Development and Social Welfare to implement a community-based case management system that relies on para-social work volunteers and was implemented across 17 districts. A packet of minimum standards was developed with UNICEF and the Ministry is assisting NGOs to implement them as they support community-based case management systems in the districts in which they operate.

Also in Zambia, UNICEF provided support to the Ministry to establish real-time data management platforms for remote case management for children living in alternative care and children in households affected by multiple vulnerabilities. UNICEF also supported the national Child Helpline to recruit 17 additional phone counsellors to provide psychosocial support to children, including those in a refugee settlement.

Education campaign on COVID-19 in SomaliaIn Somalia, a UNICEF survey conducted in July of child protection partners suggested that many children were not following physical distancing rules, there had been a rise in child protection violations and gender-based violence incidents, and the economic consequences of the lockdown were causing increased stress, anxiety and compounding high levels of vulnerability. Partners also reported a decreased ability to implement and monitor critical services and programmes. To respond to these new challenges, UNICEF supported the rapid training and deployment of 235 student social workers for a three-month period to work within government, district and civil society structures to provide a range of services to vulnerable women and children. These students have two-year bachelor-level social work training and received a short, one-week training on activities they were to undertake during their secondment period, to supplement the two years of bachelor-level work they had completed.

In Eswatini, UNICEF supported the training of 70 social workers on child protection during COVID-19; the adaptation of response protocols; and the strengthening of child-related data. UNICEF also procured and distributed 70 tablets for social workers to strengthen social services during the pandemic. These were used to support the continuity of services, virtual trainings on case management during COVID-19, rapid assessments, and the broader social work mandate.

UNICEF supported the Department of Social Welfare in Eswatini to train and place 40 social work interns in quarantine facilities and to deploy additional case management officers to support district social welfare offices. Workers were provided with mobile data and voice bundles to ensure continuity of remote services. An awareness package was developed on the adaptation of Eswatini case management protocols during COVID-19.

In Malawi, police and social welfare officers have been at the forefront of handling gender- based violence, which has increased during the pandemic. Through increased collaboration, they have been providing a range of services and interventions to support those affected.

A number of countries in the region, including Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia have begun drafting legislation to recognize social work as a profession.

Our early advocacy efforts are now also resulting in this workforce being prioritized in many countries to receive a vaccine when they arrive in the region through COVAX. The COVAX Facility’s role is to continually watch the development of COVID-19 vaccines to identify the most suitable vaccine candidates. In Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia they are being considered essential workers to receive the vaccination either alongside or immediately following frontline health workers. In doing so, governments are recognizing the essential role of these workers while helping to keep them and the individuals and communities they serve safe.

What we have learned from COVID-19 and prior health emergencies is that we cannot wait for the next epidemic to plan, develop and support the social service workforce. Increases in gender-based violence, children’s rights violations and mental health needs, among so many other social justice and equity issues resulting from COVID-19, will not go away on their own. We need the right numbers of workers with the right training in the right place at the right time to protect children, families and communities.

On World Social Work Day, we urgently call on all governments and partners to act now to strengthen this workforce to be best positioned and prepared both to tackle today’s needs and to mitigate future emergencies.