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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!

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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.