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Recognizing the essential role of the social service workforce for child protection - In March and everyday

Reposted from UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa with permission. View the original.

Social service workers in Somalia conduct community sensitization campaignsThroughout the month of March and on World Social Work Day on March 16, social service workers around the world are celebrated and recognized for their essential role in the daily lives of individuals, families and communities.

As we raise our voices in appreciation, now is also an opportune time to call for increased recognition and support for the crucial frontline role played by these workers during and prior to COVID-19.

The social service workforce for child protection plays a central role in promoting social justice; reducing discrimination and root causes of inequality; challenging harmful behaviours and social norms; preventing and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation; tackling harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation; and addressing family separations especially among migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.

They also support poverty reduction initiatives, including social protection and cash transfer programs, and respond to humanitarian crisis situations.

This year’s theme of World Social Work Day is Ubuntu: ‘I am because we are’ – Strengthening Social Solidarity and Global Connectedness. Ubuntu originates from the indigenous peoples of South Africa and was popularized across the world by Nelson Mandela.

Nurturing relationships are central to social service professionals in all aspects of work. The promotion of indigenous knowledge remains critical to informing approaches to delivery of social service interventions.

As we reflect on the challenges of the past year, we also must recognize the unsung heroes who continued carrying out essential services during this time. COVID-19 has had a significant impact on how the social service workforce delivers services and interventions.

At a time when individuals and communities, as well as workers themselves, face heightened challenges, the social service workforce has remained at the heart of building connections and linkages and ensuring the continuity of promotive, preventative and responsive services.

Social service workers ensure healthy development and well-being for children, youth, adults, older persons, families and communities. During COVID-19 they have carried out many essential services.

Social service workers are essential

New safety concerns and the resulting need for technology to connect with people remotely have impacted how the social service workforce have reached the most vulnerable children and their families.

Child Helpline staff in Uganda take calls and follow up on reports of violence

UNICEF has provided funding, technology, training and advocacy to support social service workers in being adaptive, creative and flexible in innovating new ways of making their services effective, while still upholding their professional values and standards of service.

In many communities, social service workers also provide health education and link with education, justice and health services for a continuum of care and services.

This transformation in social services has helped them transform lives under the most difficult circumstances.

In an online survey conducted by the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance in April 2020 to determine the types of services the social service workforce is providing during COVID-19, 54 per cent of respondents indicated they are providing mental health and psychosocial support services.

Mental health and psychosocial support needs have been exacerbated during this period of heightened stress.

Workers also shared that they are providing a range of child protection and gender-based violence services, ensuring children affected by COVID-19 have access to adequate alternative care arrangements and delivering protection services for children left without a care provider.

In a recent blog, Cornelius Williams, Associate Director and Global Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF Programme Division, highlighted the important role of the social service workforce for child protection and UNICEF’s continued commitment to ensuring they have the necessary tools to carry out this important work.

“The pandemic has brought social service workers who are often invisible – working “behind the scenes” – to the forefront and helped [UNICEF] highlight the critical role they play in children’s lives…Now is their time to take centre stage in this decade of action and beyond.”

As UNICEF continues to join with practitioners, organizations and other groups in celebrating the many ways this workforce has provided essential services during COVID-19, we must also act now to ensure they are properly equipped to address the many new and increased inequities individuals and communities will face long after the pandemic itself ends. 

We call on all governments to invest now in this frontline workforce and develop supportive policies to ensure that the proper number of trained workers is available to meet immediate and ongoing needs. By doing so, everyone in the community will benefit.

Molly Cannon's picture

How Digital Data Can Help Safeguard the World’s Most Vulnerable Children

Blog by Molly Cannon, Stuardo Herrera, and Ismael Ddumba-Nyanzi, Palladium
This blog originally appeared on Palladium Catalyze and is reposted with permission.

Members of the Data for Impact team reflect on how data and a case management information system can help social services, case managers, guardianship authorities, service providers and ministries manage data on children-at-risk and safeguard their welfare.

Members of the data impact team meet in UgandaMeet Elias, 13-year-old boy living in Mbale District, Uganda. His father died when he was just two years old. He had a learning disability and received support at the local school, but six years later, struggling to meet his most basic needs, his mother placed him in a residential care institution or ‘orphanage’ in a different district. This was a devastating and difficult decision for both mother and son, and Elias struggled for the next three years with an untreated learning disability that led to behavioural issues.

When the orphanage closed down, Elias immediately returned home. His mother had remarried and Elias’ behavioural problems became more severe. His new stepfather was abusive, pushing Elias to run away from home, and was eventually picked up by a local organisation that provides support to children living on the street and helps them return to family members. But unfortunately for Elias, caseworkers’ efforts to trace his family have so far proved futile and he remains in the system.

A Common Problem Across the World

Elias’ situation isn’t an unusual one, but with the right system in place, it could be avoided altogether. There are approximately 50,000 children living in an estimated 500 residential institutions in Uganda. Many of these institutions are unregistered and operate with little to no government oversight. Perhaps more startling is the fact that more than two-thirds of the children living in institutional homes in Uganda have a living parent. With the right support, they could return to their birth parents.

According to the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care for Children, the removal of a child from the family must be a measure of last resort, and whenever possible, be temporary and for the shortest possible duration. The guideline adds that poverty should never be the only justification for the removal of a child, and if a child is separated, the ultimate goal should be to reunify the child with family.

To protect the child’s best interests, the reunification process needs to be carefully planned and managed, with effective and sustained family preparation, strengthening, monitoring, and other support to ensure the child isn’t left in a more vulnerable situation than where they started.

How Data Could Have Helped

The UN Guidelines also explicitly indicate that the State is responsible for developing, implementing, and coordinating policies on care for all children without parental care, and those policies should be based on sound information and statistical data. This data, when properly implemented in a larger system, can be crucial for helping caseworkers and others to better support children like Elias and his family.

Many countries rely on paper-based or aggregated data for reporting purposes and don’t have ways to address some of the urgent issues children face. A well-designed, digitised, web-based platform can help social services, case managers, guardianship authorities, service providers and ministries manage data on children-at-risk, with tools that facilitate case management and longitudinal tracking, and integrating information from different agencies that manage child protection data.

Data, when properly implemented, can be crucial for helping caseworkers to better support children like Elias.

Ideally, this digitised case management information system (CMIS) would streamline and integrate vertical data from the community up to the district and national levels and facilitate horizontal integration of data across services. It could have provided valuable information to caseworkers to help Elias and his mother at various points in time, through having: 

  • Prevented Elias’ separation in the first place. If the community or district had a way to identify families in need, they could have ensured more financial support through vouchers, support finding a job, etc. to his mother so she could keep him at home.
  • Ensured Elias fared well at the residential care institution. Even if Elias ended up in the institution, a case management information system with information about his medical and educational background could have ensured that information about his learning disability was available to the social workers so they could have ensured he had the right services and support.
  • Shortened Elias’ stay in residential care. If the state had a way to monitor the length of time Elias and other children were in residential care, they could have intervened earlier to provide support to his family for the reunification.
  • Ensured Elias’ return home was successful and prevented his running away. The process of reunification could take up to a year if done properly. If the state had a way to monitor how prepared. the child and the family was for his return, they could have provided the necessary counseling services to promote proper reunification. If they could have monitored how Elias was faring upon his return home, they could have identified the problem earlier and intervened.
  • Use of CMIS could support many other children in a similar situation. If national and international agencies had data and indicators to monitor the children’s situations, they could have set policies and tailored interventions to improve not only Elias’ life, but the lives of many children in Uganda. 

Current Status of Alternative Care for Children Data 

Ministries of Gender, Labour and Social Protection typically have the primary responsibility to care for and report on vulnerable children. Few countries have achieved a useful CMIS at scale, but there is a keen interest from service providers, governments, implementing partners and donors in achieving this. 

What would it take to implement this type of system successfully? Some of the key factors include: 

  • Common indicators, definitions and standard operating procedures for data collection to help children like Elias and their caseworkers. The system needs to track the right information and measure it consistently.
  • Routine data review. In some countries, data are reported only on an annual basis, meaning they are not actively using the data to improve efforts at addressing children’s needs. In Elias’ case, had the district had a monthly report on struggling children, they could have caught Elias’ unaddressed learning disability.
  • Complete reporting from all service providers, including unregistered residential institutions. In some countries like Uganda, many residential institutions operated by non-governmental organisations bypass registration processes and data for those children are not reported. In the case of Elias, if he were at a residential institution operated by an unregistered entity, the state would not have the ability to know anything about Elias.
  • Responsible data approaches. Safeguarding children and families’ private information is crucial and responsible approaches ensure that data is managed in a secure and ethical way, ensuring privacy and consent.
  • Country governance of the CMIS, including mechanisms for ownership and accountability, including intersectoral coordination and selection of the most appropriate digital platform given the country’s conditions.
  • The successful implementation and deployment of a CMIS depends on understanding the children’s true needs, working with case managers to understand their pains and incentives, and understanding of the local technology and capabilities. 

But when it’s in place, a functioning CMIS has the potential to generate data to monitor and address the needs of at-risk children and families, to avoid unnecessary separation, and to ensure appropriate placement in temporary alternative care and successful reunification of children with families.

Anonymous's picture

A Child-rights Based Approach to the Pandemic

Gemma Cavaliere
Outreach and Development Officer, Defence for Children International (DCI)

Social Workers in Palestine at DCI project site

Children face many direct and indirect long-term social and economic consequences from the global pandemic. As a recent UN study has found, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed an additional 150 million children into multidimensional poverty – deprived of education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water. Similarly, disruption of health services affects the ability to protect life-saving maternal, newborn and child health services.

Learning from Past Experiences

The stage of the outbreak can vary by country as well as different factors of vulnerability. This has complicated the protection of children’s rights at a global level and instead required national and regional approaches. For instance, the low level of hygiene in detention facilities worsens the impact of the pandemic for children deprived of liberty, while the overcrowding of temporary settlements facilitates the spread of the virus among children and their families on the move. One of the indirect consequences of the containment measures is the increase of violence against children, as living in a confined space increases the risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse. 

Defence For Children International (DCI) is a leading child rights focused and membership-based grassroots movement that is applying lessons learned from Ebola to this current pandemic. DCI has been promoting and protecting children’s rights on a global, regional, national, and local level for 40 years. DCI is represented through its National Sections and Associated Members in 39 countries located in Africa, Asia, Europe, Americas, the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Their experience shows that health crises can trigger additional exclusion, discrimination, violence and abuse against children. Looking at the recent past, it turned out, for example, that school closings during the Ebola epidemic in Sierra-Leone had led, among other things, to more cases of violence and sexual abuse. Already in April 2020, DCI-Jordan needed to rent additional locations as shelters for women and girl victims of rape in order not to put at risk the health of the current residents.

The Global DCI Survey 

Defence for Children International (DCI) conducted a survey in April 2020 on the impact of the pandemic on children and local communities where DCI is present. Through these responses, they compiled a report for experts, practitioners, youth representatives, governments and donors aimed at leveraging DCI first-hand experience to protect and promote a child-rights based approach to the pandemic. 

Preparedness and Good Practices

In some countries, DCI stepped in to ask States to uphold the rights of children as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to ensure their protection and guarantee equal access to education and health care. In other circumstances, DCI called on States to do more in terms of prevention and tracing, or to subsidize more targeted programs from the bottom-up, thus involving more civil society organizations in the decision-making process through social dialogue. 

Some examples of this include:

In Palestine, DCI social workers had to divert calls from the hotlines to their personal numbers to cope with an unprecedented number of emergency assistance requests. DCI-Palestine also reported “…lawyers and field workers can’t collect the necessary evidence of child rights violations: monitoring visits and social services in detention centres are forbidden, whether to collect affidavits from detained children on the forms of torture and ill treatment during their arrest, or to provide prior-interrogation consultations.”

In Latin America, an alliance was formed to tackle the specific impact on children deprived of liberty. The Alliance is composed by DCI-Americas, the NGO Justicia Juvenil International (JJI), ILANUD and Fair Trials and it collects quality information from the region on emergency action and / or protocols for the prevention and mitigation of contagions inside the detention centres.

In Sierra Leone, the thematic area of Justice for Children has been particularly highlighted “… with regards to Family Tracing and Reunification and Reintegration for children who have come into contact and into conflict with the law. This is largely because of the need to observe government regulations on limited movements and the need for social distancing.” DCI - Sierra Leone. 

In the Netherlands, there is a Child Help Line and a specific crisis fund established within two weeks’ time to support vulnerable children. 

The Coronavirus Impact on Children on the Move

With the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the needs of children on the move have become even more acute. DCI supports children on the move in various contexts and countries. 

DCI-Morocco urged the international community for support as children are now roaming the streets without resources or protection. Children on the move require not only physical, but also psychological support. DCI-Lebanon affirmed that the situation is worrisome, particularly for refugee children who do not have access to regular psychological support. Only one week after a coronavirus outbreak was detected in a camp in Lesvos, there was a huge fire. Greek authorities halted the registration of new asylum cases in April 2020.

Ensuring Online Child Participation

One area of work deeply touched by the crisis was child participation, due to the many cancellations of events. Based on this evidence, DCI organized more child-led events, including an on-line child conversation held in July, to hear from children about their personal experience of the crisis and which issues global leaders should prioritize to ensure a gender-based approach during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

Participants highlighted for the future the importance of the creation of a common platform to share and update documents regarding the pandemic and children rights; the participation in video-conference debates and Webinars on issues related to children rights; the translation of summaries of important documents from other sections; and the sharing of national experiences and ways forward.

Overall, DCI remained a watchdog on child rights violations, and, even though immediate and equitably distributed resources are always limited, we hope throughout our work to inspire individual and collective change during the COVID19 period and beyond. 

This blog was originally written for the COVID 4P Log website and posted by Inspiring Children’s Futures at the University of Strathclyde. It has been adapted and reposted with permission from Inspiring Children’s Futures and DCI. DCI, like the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, was a key partner in the development and promotion of the COVID 4P Log.

Nicole Brown's picture

Eliminating Violence Against Women and Girls: Social service workers play a key role

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, on November 25, is an annual day aimed at increasing awareness and hastening progress to end all gender-based violence. It is the launch of 16 Days of Activism to increase advocacy and actions to end violence, concluding on December 10, Human Rights Day.

The numbers of women and girls subjected to violence are staggering and represent a grave violation of human rights. As many countries faced lock down during 2020 due to COVID-19, these numbers are increasing. UN Women shares some alarming statistics:

Orange the WorldThis year's campaign calls for "global action to bridge funding gaps, ensure essential services for survivors of violence during the COVID-19 crisis, focus on prevention, and collect data that can improve life-saving services for women and girls." 

The United Nations defines violence against women as any act that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. Violence occurs in many forms-physical, sexual and psychosocial- having a long-lasting emotional and mental impact that affects overall well-being. 

The UN Sustainable Development Goals call for specific actions to address violence against women and girls by the year 2030. Goal #5 aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” including target 5.2 that calls for “eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.” SDG target 16.2 aims to “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.” 

A well planned, developed and supported social service workforce is a key component of a strong system needed to address this issue. Social service workers are trained to analyze and understand the complex and varied reasons that violence is perpetrated against women and can support communities in changing societal behaviors and preventing violence. Social service workers also play a key role in providing counseling and referral services for care and treatment of physical, mental and psychosocial health. Creating an environment where women and girls are comfortable sharing that they have been a victim of violence is an essential first step to providing care and treatment. Social service workers can also be advocates to the government and for victims, and oftentimes have a leading role in obtaining justice by working closely with law enforcement.

“Child protection workers and violence against women advocates are now finding new ways to work together,” said Dr. Bernadette J. Madrid, MD, Executive Director of the Child Protection Network Foundation, Inc. in the Philippines. “Studies show that interventions to prevent domestic violence can also reduce the exposure of children to domestic violence leading to synergistic effects. These results are very exciting to professionals working in the Women and Child Protection Units in the Philippines. While there are different issues that separate violence against women and violence against children, there are also intersections for cooperative efforts.”

Get Involved
Show your support and help raise awareness by joining in 16 days of activism.

  • The United Nations is mark 16 days of activism now through December 10, Human Rights Day. In support of The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, individuals are encouraged to wear orange as a demonstration of a bright future, free from violence
  • Join the United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women by organizing “Orange Events” between 25 November and 10 December. 
  • Share photos, messages and videos showing how you orange your world at and using #orangetheworld.

Tweet Your Support

Below are some drafted tweets we encourage you to share on Twitter. The Alliance will also be tweeting throughout the 16 days and we invite you to follow us, share and comment.

  • The social service workforce plays a vital role in helping to #ENDViolence against women. #GBV
  • The social service workforce plays a key role in spotting signs of abuse & providing care/treatment. #orangetheworld
  • Social service workers are committed to #ENDViolence but we need to support this workforce to achieve #SDG16.
Nicole Brown's picture

Delivering Mental Health and Psychosocial Support - The essential role of the social service workforce in supporting refugees and migrants

Blog by Nicole Brown, Communications and Advocacy Manager, Global Social Service Workforce Alliance

MHPSS trainingOver the past eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people facing lockdowns and drastic changes in interactions outside the home, the mental health impact across all ages and groups of people has become more apparent and alarming. For asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, who already face distressing and unknown situations, there are additional risks and uncertainties that are exacerbating stressors and anxiety. Many countries rushed to send asylum seekers or migrant workers back to their home countries. This vulnerable group of children and families has extra reason to fear COVID-19 as a result of being on the move and lacking permanent shelter and residency, preventing them from being able to comfortably shelter in place, maintain social distance, receive preventative treatments or access other health services. These fears, combined with so many others, are creating longer-term negative impacts on the mental health and psychosocial well-being of these children and families.

Estimates based on research in 2019 shows that more than one in five people (22·1%) in post-conflict settings has depression, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.[1] COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate these already high rates of mental health disorders among this particularly vulnerable population.

The first director of the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that, “without mental health, there is no health.”[2] Mental well-being is closely connected to overall well-being. There is also increasing acknowledgement of the important role mental health plays in achieving global development goals, as illustrated by the inclusion of mental health in the Sustainable Development Goals. With an estimated 271.6 million migrants worldwide, meeting these mental health needs is a significant challenge.

Yet, despite these worrying statistics and downward trends in mental health, there is reason for hope. Social service workers are on the frontlines of assessing needs and delivering services to hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they haven’t shied away from this challenging role, rather they have shown that, now more than ever, they should be considered an essential workforce.

Social service workers are trained and qualified to meet mental health and psychosocial support needs in development and humanitarian settings. During this pandemic, they have drawn on their training and experience in responding to other disasters, outbreaks and crises. In a survey conducted by the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance on social service workforce response during COVID-19, 54% of respondents indicated they are providing MHPSS services.[3]

In addition to directly addressing MHPSS needs, social service workers address a myriad of other stressors in order to prevent mental health problems. In refugee settings, they play an essential role in a range of activities including: reunification and family tracing; fostering community acceptance, social integration and social inclusion; making referrals to other services and health providers; ensuring access to social protection; distribution of necessary supplies and materials, and so much more. They are also the connectors and facilitators who unite and coordinate input from other sectors, disciplines and borders. Examples of the essential coordinating roles they perform include:

  • In Tanzania a team of government social workers were trained by REPSSI, prior to COVID-19, on responding to emergencies and delivery of psychosocial support (PSS) services. These workers were then in place at the onset of COVID-19 to provide counselling services to those affected by PSS issues as a result of losing loved ones to COVID-19 or supporting those who were in quarantine centers.
  • With 170,263 children affected by COVID-19 school closures in Bhutan, the Ministry of Education activated the Education Emergency Operation Centre under which a mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sub desk was created. To ensure the provision of MHPSS to children, parents and caregivers in need, UNICEF supported 147 school counsellors from 20 districts to be trained on how to provide psychosocial support remotely to parents and caregivers and face to face structured psychosocial support to children once the schools reopen.
  • In Ireland, social workers were rapidly devising new services and ways to support individuals and families. They developed liaison services for families where loved ones living in mental health residential settings may be separated from other family members and used telehealth platforms as one way of continuing services, as reported by the Irish Association of Social Workers to the International Federation of Social Workers. 
  • In Madagascar, UNICEF, in collaboration with the Ministry of Population, developed a technical guidance note in Malagasy on how social service workforce volunteers could assist in providing psychosocial support for people affected or in contact with COVID-19. It included detailed guidance on the provision of psychosocial support in health care, institutional and home settings. The guidance has been shared across all 22 regions of Madagascar in hard copy. An audio training based on the guidance is being developed and dispatched across solar reusable radio, to overcome the limited internet and smartphone access.

Social service workers have long been advocates and champions for the prevention, promotion and provision of mental health and psychosocial support services (MHPSS). Recognizing and advocating for the essential role that the social service workforce plays in developing and providing these services, in the current pandemic and beyond, will enable the workforce to continue and expand its work. This will enable a wider range of children, families and vulnerable individuals to benefit from the unique range of services the workforce can provide.

[1] The Lancet. (2019). New WHO Prevalence Estimates of Mental Disorders in Conflict Settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis.

[2] Dr Brock Chisholm, the first Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), was a psychiatrist and shepherded the notion that mental and physical health were intimately linked. He famously stated that “without mental health there can be no true physical health.”

[3] An online survey was conducted in April 2020, with 215 responses from 33 countries. These findings helped to inform the technical note on Safety and Wellbeing for the Social Service Workforce during COVID-19 Response: Recommended Actions.

Anonymous's picture

Rising to Tomorrow’s Challenges: The Power of the Social Service Workforce on the Frontlines to Protect Children

blog by Cornelius WilliamsAssociate Director & Global Chief of Child Protection, Programme Division, UNICEF

A strong social service workforce demonstrates not only the power of individuals to impact peoples’ lives, but their collective power to challenge norms and drive change on the ground. In the 1990s, during the armed conflict in my home country Sierra Leone, I witnessed firsthand how our decrepit, post-colonial era social service workforce came under stress amid the civil war but then transformed itself to rise to the challenges faced by children on the frontlines. Rather than following previous pressures to acculturate families to maintain economic, social, and political stability, the workforce defied colonial norms and instead championed the rights and equality of thousands of children through sustained support and rehabilitation.

Social service worker in Bangladesh supports two children

This transformative power has been witnessed globally where we have seen first responders and frontline workers forced to fast-track lessons learned and adapt to populations’ needs by developing new, or reformed, systems and rules that challenge patriarchal hierarchy and social injustice. Undeniably the most important element of child protection systems, a strong social service workforce is a lynchpin that cuts across actors and across sectors to protect children from harm and social injustice. The multifaceted roles of these workers are vital, ranging from service delivery to policy development at various levels.

Governments and organizations have traditionally invested in some aspects of strengthening the social service workforce, particularly in training its workers. However, the focus of these initiatives has largely been on those already in a specific job or assigned to perform certain job functions. Little attention was paid to strengthening the workforce more comprehensively by: 1) identifying and planning its requirements; 2) institutionalizing the role of its workers through national legislation or programmes; and 3) developing education and training programmes based on real-life contexts, with long-term opportunities for career growth and development. The absence of these measures has contributed to further minimizing the already poor level of recognition of the essential roles social service workers play.  

UNICEF has long engaged in efforts to amplify and support this issue, including our close association with the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance since its launch in 2013. More recently, we identified social service workforce strengthening as an organizational priority for our work on child protection embedded in our Strategic Plan (2018 -2021). Now that we have reached the midway point of implementation, I would like to take a moment to reflect on how far we have come, and how much further we need to go.

At the global level, we prioritized the development of public goods to support our work at the country level. In 2019, UNICEF, in consultation with the Alliance, issued its first-ever global Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Service Workforce for Child Protection, followed by a mapping toolkit for social service workforce, and other resources. Earlier this year, UNICEF launched its online course on social service workforce strengthening – in just three months we saw more than 3,400 participants (and counting) complete the course, demonstrating why the importance of this topic.

On the ground, our work translated into supporting governments with various actions to better plan, develop, and support their respective workforce. In 2019, UNICEF supported 137 countries to strengthen the social service workforce globally. From conducting mappings and assessments; to helping plan the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa region; to advocacy in East Asia and the Pacific (with ASEAN), and in Europe and Central Asia, respectively; to developing policies and legislation in Malaysia; to setting up academic programmes in Bhutan and supervision systems in the Gambia – this work has been both challenging and rewarding.

While we have seen progress globally, we must also recognize some sombre reflections as we implement the latter half UNICEF’s Strategic Plan – including that prioritizing investments to systematically strengthen the social service workforce is not as straightforward as it sounds. In countries that face economic challenges, social sectors are the first to be hit by cutbacks in spending – a harsh reality likely to be further exacerbated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges are further amplified by the ripple effects of the pandemic which have also increased child protection risks – such as violence, child labour, child marriage –, leading to more children in need of child protection services.

However, new challenges also bring new opportunities. The pandemic has brought social service workers who are often invisible – working “behind the scenes” – to the forefront and helped us highlight the critical role they play in children’s lives. Their inspiring stories have resonated with leaders and policymakers alike, giving us hope that we are on the right path. Using remote case management and virtual case conferencing as the new normal would have been almost unthinkable until recently. As a sector, child protection adapted quickly to the new reality – and a host of tools and guidance were made available in a matter of days. On the ground, however, workers continue to face challenges – both in terms of access to technology, and the lack of face-to-face interaction that has for long been a hallmark of child protection.

At UNICEF, we are committed to advocating for and supporting governments to plan, develop, and support the next generation of the social service workforce. While there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution, we do know key elements of a strong workforce are to be informed by a robust evidence-base, responsive to today’s changing realities, and able to anticipate tomorrow’s challenges. These individuals are on the frontlines every day – whether in a war zone or deprived local neighborhood. They are social justice warriors driving the major transformation we are seeing unfold in the Global South – from South Africa to India –, and now is their time to take centre stage in this decade of action and beyond.

Cornelius Williams is Associate Director and Global Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF Programme Division. He has over 25 years of experience in managing child protection programmes in Western, Eastern and Southern Africa with UNICEF and Save the Children. As a child rights advocate, he has been involved in advocacy that led to improved protection of children from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings, reduced recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups, and increased access of children to identity documents/ birth certificate and social assistance and other services. Mr. Williams has played a leading role in coordinating UNICEF’s engagement with governments and other partners in the development of programmes for the prevention and response to violence against children in countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. He is a national of Sierra Leone and holds a Master of Arts in International Child Welfare from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.

SULLY SANTOS's picture

A Lifetime of Lessons: What being a member of the essential workforce transforming care for children has taught me

Blog by Sully Santos de Ucles, Maestral International and Changing the Way We Care
Toda una vida de lecciones: ¿Qué me ha enseñado ser miembro del recurso humano necesario que transforma el cuidado de los niños, niñas y adolescentes?

Being a member of the social service workforce dedicated to children's care and protection has been one of my life’s greatest privileges. Throughout my professional and educational training, I have learned that it is absolutely crucial to have the skills, knowledge and attitude, what we refer to as core competencies, which enable me to serve children and families in a manner that is strengths-based and works towards achieving their wellbeing and potential.

“I am convinced that one of the most important ways to support children to reach their potential is through their parents or caregivers. It is absolutely critical to provide adults with information, skills, and knowledge to empower and enable them in their parenting role. We must be understanding and empathetic and support them so that they can overcome their own fears and frustrations and care for children in a manner that respects their rights and allows them to thrive.”

My own career path has taken a winding road and allowed me various vantage points from which to understand, participate and contribute to child protection and care; it has included everything from providing direct services to managing specific projects to serving in government leadership roles designing policy and strategic priorities. I have also taught child-focused social work in an academic setting, and, currently serve as a technical advisor to different initiatives and work with the new generation of members of this important workforce. My professional journey has opened doors that I never expected and taught me lessons I carry with me. 

As my professional journey continued, I accepted a leadership position with the Secretariat for Social Welfare in Guatemala, the government institution mandated with providing services to vulnerable children, including residential care. I was given the opportunity to influence policy, strategic planning and programming to ensure that it served children’s best interests. It was not something that I took lightly as I realized that with the opportunity of this leadership position came immense responsibility.My educational background is in education and psychology. I spent my early years as a teacher where I was able to engage with children and adolescents in a unique way within a school environment. I had children in my classroom who came from highly vulnerable communities; socially, economically and even geographically. It quickly taught me that providing a safe and stimulating environment for children often made the difference between those who could progress and those who could not. Schools often serve as safe spaces for children who don’t have safety or stability at home. I then started working with children with visual challenges. This experience illustrated the inequity and limited access to services faced by children and adults with disabilities. These children and their parents taught me about resilience and unconditional love. It also showed me great strengths where people often assume weakness. 

Sully conducting a training

After several years in a government position, I left to take up work within the NGO sector. My first role was with an organization that served some of the most forgotten and vulnerable children in Guatemala - those who survive by living and working in the city dump. This jump taught me to value life, resiliency and daily survival in a new way; one which I had not previously understood. I learned a great deal about the commitment made by families to their children, despite living in some of the world's worst conditions. I later worked for an NGO specializing in deinstitutionalization, which means reducing the reliance on large institutions to care for children who cannot be cared for by their own families. We specifically focused on reintegrating children under three years from institutions back to their families, given the critical importance of that stage in a child’s development. The research shows how important the child’s attachment to a caring adult is during this phase. This work solidified my belief that all efforts must be made to provide children with a safe and nurturing family. I was reminded numerous times how most parents want to do well for their children. However, many need extra support, guidance or resources to do so.

“Having to quarantine during COVID-19, to watch life happening outside from where I sit without being able to engage, provided me with a new perspective of what a child living in residential care must feel like. It gave me a renewed drive to work towards a world where children are not in that position; a passion to secure family-based care for all children.”

More than a year ago, I moved from an operational role to a technical role. Building on my experience over the past two decades, I have been able to collaborate with important initiatives and organizations like Changing the Way We Care and UNICEF. I have directed my focus on creating innovative and evidence-based tools and approaches that help guide the workforce to better serve children and support families. I have worked with and mentored dedicated professionals committed to doing their part to promote care reform and family-based systems of care. I have led workforce mapping exercises where I was privileged to learn about the skills and passions that drive social workers, psychologists and others, across countries and contexts, to fulfill children’s rights to care and protection. In this, I found solidarity with a larger workforce! 

And like everyone, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted my own family and my work. It has taught me patience and made me think more innovatively, while also being more flexible, with colleagues and myself. It has also shown me again and again, how essential the social service workforce is in adapting and moving forward despite the challenges put in front of them. COVID-19 has renewed my pride in this community that is the social service workforce. It has also reminded me in more ways than I can count, that to care for others we must take care of ourselves. As members of the workforce dedicated to children’s care and protection, we carry heavy burdens. We see suffering and try to make it better. We see rights violated and do everything in our power to reinstate those rights and to inspire social justice. We support others in their caregiving abilities, even whilst caring for our own. And yet, we often don’t pay the same attention to our own situation and our own needs. As we celebrate how important the workforce is not only during emergencies like COVID-19 but each and every day, I urge all of us to remember to take care of ourselves. We must be healthy, emotionally as well as physically, to successfully serve others. 

Changing The Way We Care (CTWWC) is an initiative designed to promote safe, nurturing family care for children from institutions or children at risk of child-family separation. This includes strengthening families and reforming national systems of care for children, including family reunification and reintegration, development of alternative family-based care (in keeping with the United Nations Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children). CTWWC is a consortium of three partners (Catholic Relief Services, Lumos and Maestral International), joined through a Global Development Alliance by three donors (MacArthur Foundation, USAID and GHR Foundation). CTWWC operates in a context of growing interest in care reform, and as a result of a growing global understanding that institutional care of children is a significant problem that will be best addressed through collaboration between national, regional and global stakeholders to develop alternative care systems supportive of family care. 


Toda una vida de lecciones: ¿Qué me ha enseñado ser miembro del recurso humano necesario que transforma el cuidado de los niños, niñas y adolescentes?
Por Sully Santos de Uclés, Maestral International y Changing the Way We Care

Ser miembro del recurso humano de los servicios sociales dedicados al cuidado y protección de los niños, niñas y adolecentes, ha sido uno de los mayores privilegios de mi vida. A lo largo de mi formación profesional y educativa, he aprendido que es decisivo contar con las habilidades, conocimientos y actitudes necesarias, a las que llamamos competencias básicas, para poder servir a los niños, niñas, adolescentes y las familias basándonos en sus fortalezas para alcanzar su bienestar y potencial. 

"Estoy convencida que la mejor manera y más importante de apoyar a la niñez y adolescencia para que alcancen su potencial es a través de fortalecer las capacidades de sus padres o cuidadores. Es absolutamente clave proporcionar a los adultos: información, desarrollar sus habilidades y conocimientos para empoderarlos y sensibilizarlos en su función de crianza. Debemos ser comprensivos y empáticos, apoyarlos para que puedan superar sus propios temores y frustraciones y cuidar a los niños, niñas o adolecentes de una manera que respeten sus derechos y les permitan prosperar."

Durante mi trayectoria profesional he recorrido un camino privilegiado, aunque a veces escabroso, que me ha permitido conocer varios puntos de vista y enfoques: entendiendo, participando y contribuyendo a la protección y el cuidado de la infancia. Este recorrido ha incluido desde la prestación de servicios directos y la gestión de proyectos específicos hasta el servicio en funciones de liderazgo gubernamental diseñando prioridades políticas y estratégicas. También desde la enseñanza en un entorno académico de trabajo social centrado en NNA. Actualmente soy asesor técnico de diferentes iniciativas y trabajo con la nueva  generación de miembros de esta importante fuerza de trabajo. 

Durante mi viaje profesional en educación y psicología, se han abierto puertas que nunca esperé y me han enseñado las lecciones que llevo conmigo. Pasé mis primeros años como maestra de preescolar, donde pude relacionarme con niños y niñas de manera única dentro de un entorno escolar. Tenía a cargo niños y niñas en mi salón de clase que provenían de comunidades muy vulnerables; social, económica e incluso geográficamente. Esto rápidamente me enseñó que proporcionar un ambiente seguro y estimulante para ellos a menudo marcaba la diferencia entre los que podrían progresar y los que probablemente no; comprendí que las escuelas a menudo sirven como espacios seguros para los niños y niñas que no tienen esa seguridad o estabilidad en el hogar. Posteriormente empecé a trabajar con niños, niñas, adolecentes y adultos en situación de discapacidad visual; esta experiencia me ilustraba la inequidad y el acceso limitado a los servicios que enfrenta esta población vulnerable; aprendí de estos niños, niñas, adolescentes y sus padres acerca de la resiliencia y el amor incondicional; también me mostró grandes fortalezas donde a menudo se asume debilidad. 

A medida que mi viaje profesional continuó, acepté un puesto de liderazgo con la Secretaría de Bienestar Social en Guatemala, la institución gubernamental encargada de brindar servicios de protección especial a niñez y adolescencia vulnerable, conocí de cerca la atención residencial y sus consecuencias. No fue algo que tomara a la ligera porque esta posición de liderazgo también traía una inmensa responsabilidad, sin embargo, tuve la oportunidad de influir desde las políticas, la planificación estratégica y la programación que permitía responder con determinación al interés superior de los niños, niñas y adolescentes de mi país.  

Después de varios años en una posición de gobierno, me trasladé al sector de las ONG, siendo mi primer contacto, una organización que atiende a la niñez y adolescencia más vulnerable, estigmatizada y olvidada de Guatemala; al ser parte de las familias que sobreviven trabajando en el relleno sanitario de la ciudad. Esta oportunidad me enseñó a valorar la vida, la capacidad de resiliencia y la supervivencia diaria de una manera inesperada, que no había entendido previamente;  aprendí mucho sobre el compromiso de las familias por sus hijos, a pesar de vivir en algunas de las peores condiciones de vida del mundo. Más tarde trabajé para una ONG enfocada en la desinstitucionalización de niños y niñas, conociendo lo que significa reducir la dependencia de grandes instituciones para cuidar a los niños y niñas que no pueden ser atendidos por sus propias familias. Nos centramos específicamente en reintegrar a sus familias, a los menores de tres años que estaban en cuidado residencial, dada la importancia crítica de esa etapa en el desarrollo de un niña o niño; y de la importancia del apego del niño a un adulto que cuida durante esta fase. En el ejercicio de este rol se solidificó mi entendimiento en relación a que, se deben hacer todos los esfuerzos necesarios, para que los niños, niñas o adolescentes no sean separados de forma innecesaria de su familia. Para ello se requiere potencializar a las familias en sus capacidades y fortalezas, porque muchas veces la mayoría de los padres quieren lo mejor para sus hijos e hijas, pero regularmente no saben cómo, por lo que con la orientación y el apoyo necesario, pueden desarrollar capacidades que no aprendieron de sus padres y que tampoco imaginaron podrían hacer.

"Cuando me tocó que estar en cuarentena durante COVID-19, y ver la vida de adentro hacia afuera, limitada en mi interacción social con los demás, ayudó a proporcionarme una nueva perspectiva de lo que siente y vive un niño, niña o adolescente en el cuidado residencial. proporcionándome un renovado impulso para trabajar hacia un mundo donde la niñez y adolescencia no debe ver a través de una ventana lo que pasa afuera, sin que ellos hayan sido responsables de estar recluidos donde están; la cuarentena y el COVID-19 me motivó a continuar con la pasión y convicción de que el cuidado familiar seguro y estable es lo mejor para todos los niños, niñas y adolescentes en cualquier parte del mundo."

Hace más de un año, pasé de un rol operativo y de campo a un rol de asesoría y orientación técnica, siendo éste otro salto inesperado, sin embargo, con la construcción de mi experiencia en las últimas dos décadas, he podido colaborar con importantes iniciativas y organizaciones como Changing the Way We Care y UNICEF. He dirigido mis habilidades en la creación de herramientas y enfoques innovadores y basados en la evidencia, que ayudan a guiar al recurso humano especializado para brindar un mejor servicio a la niñez, adolescencia y las familias. También he trabajado y asesorado a profesionales comprometidos a promover reformas en el cuidado y los sistemas de protección basados en la familia. Recientemente dirigí ejercicios de mapeo del recurso humano dedicado a la protección, donde tuve el privilegio de aprender en diferentes países y contextos, sobre las habilidades y las pasiones que impulsan a los trabajadores sociales, psicólogos, sociólogos, pedagogos, abogados en el cumplimiento de los derechos de la niñez y adolescencia respecto a prevención y respuesta. En esto, ¡encontré una fuerza laboral grande y solidaria!

La pandemia COVID-19 ha impactado a mi propia familia y  mi trabajo. Sin embargo, me ha enseñado a ser mas paciente, me ha hecho reflexionar, ser innovadora y creativa, a la vez más flexible, con colegas y conmigo misma. También me ha mostrado una y otra vez lo esencial que es la fuerza de trabajo de los servicios sociales para adaptarse y avanzar a pesar de los retos que se plantean. COVID-19, ha renovado mi orgullo en esta comunidad que es la fuerza de trabajo de servicio social, también me ha recordado que hay muchas y mejores maneras de cuidar a los demás, sin dejar de cuidar de uno mismo. Como miembros de la fuerza de trabajo dedicada al cuidado y protección de los niños, niñas y adolecentes, estoy consciente que la carga emocional es pesada y fuerte, particularmente cuando observamos el sufrimiento de la víctima, su tristeza, frustración, tratando  de abordarlo y disminuirlo. Vemos como los derechos son violados y hacemos todo lo que está a nuestro alcance para restablecerlos e inspirar la justicia social. Apoyamos a los demás en sus habilidades de cuidado, incluso mientras  cuidamos de los nuestros. Y sin embargo, a menudo no prestamos la misma atención a nuestra propia situación y a nuestras propias necesidades. Al celebrar lo importante que es la fuerza de trabajo no sólo durante emergencias como COVID-19, sino todos los días, insto a todos mis colegas a recordar cuidar de nosotros mismos; debemos estar sanos, tanto emocional como físicamente, para servir con éxito y pasión a los demás. 

Changing The Way We Care (CTWWC) es una iniciativa diseñada para promover el cuidado familiar seguro para los niños, niñas y adolescentes viviendo en instituciones o en riesgo de separación de sus familias. Esto incluye el fortalecimiento de las familias y la reforma de los sistemas nacionales de atención a los niños, incluida la reunificación y reintegración familiar, el desarrollo de atención alternativa basada en la familia (de conformidad con las Directrices de las Naciones Unidas para la Atención Alternativa de los Niños). CTWWC es un consorcio de tres socios (Catholic Relief Services, Lumos y Maestral International), unidos a través de una Alianza Global de Desarrollo por tres donantes (Fundación MacArthur, USAID y GHR Foundation). CTWWC opera en un contexto de creciente interés en la reforma del cuidado, y como resultado de un creciente entendimiento mundial de que la atención institucional de la niñez y adolescencia es un problema significativo que se abordará mejor mediante la colaboración entre las partes interesadas nacionales, regionales y mundiales para desarrollar sistemas de atención alternativos basados en la atención familiar.

Ian Milligan's picture

Supervision - An essential ingredient in sustaining effective practice

blog by Ian Milligan, International Advisor, CELCIS, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

In social services, the type of supervision we have is quite distinctive – it is meant to be personal, supportive, developmental - things that are not usually associated with supervision as a traditional middle management-type role.

In recent years there have been numerous pieces of research and policy documents aimed at improving supervision –  carried out in countries where social work is well established. The fact that there is much research into supervision in countries where it is well-established, tells you that it is a difficult thing to get right and sustain. That is certainly true in my experience in Scotland and across the UK.

The Alliance Interest Group on Supervision in the Social Service Workforce 

So I have been very happy to be part of the Alliance’s global consultation process on the subject. I was one of the co-chairs of the interest group, working along with Jane Calder, Senior Child Protection Advisor, Asia and Pacific, and Sayed Adrian Mawismi, Assistant Development Officer, Department of Social Welfare in Malaysia. The consultation took place online, and over 60 people took part in a number of discussion and planning calls, exploring the main issues before we split into three working groups.  

Naturally, we had lots of viewpoints, even just about how we should describe what we all talking about! We began by agreeing to a definition and some basic meanings about the various ‘models’ of supervision. We realised that we had to be clear about what we meant in what we hope will be a widely used and translated toolkit. While this toolkit isn’t meant to be exhaustive or the final say on supervision, it is intended to bridge best practices and knowledge on supervision and to provide a toolkit of resources to support the development of supervision.Some of our starting points: there are many countries where supportive supervision is little understood and rarely practiced. There are other countries where social work is a relatively new profession and few people with the experience or capacity to undertake supervision. In some places the State has begun to recruit social workers but often not established systematic systems of supervision. We hope our guidance provides advocacy and resources to address this gap. We also wanted to see if we could find or develop any guidance to deal with the COVID-19 situation and the need for online supervision. We also wanted our guidance to address whole workforce, while recognising much of the literature and practice has been developed within the social work profession. We wanted to look at existing resources and we drew from recent resources published in Namibia, Myanmar and Cambodia to name but three. We also recognised the value in recent work of the Inter-Agency group who produced the Supervision and Coaching package developed for those working in emergency situations but with great relevance to those in development contexts also.

Cover of the Guidance Manual

Group supervision and peer supervision was a topic which came up more than I expected in the interest discussions. My sub-group felt that peer group supervision might be especially useful in countries where social work is an emerging profession, and where there are few experienced managers who can offer reflective supervision.

Bottom up as well as top down

Making supervision happen across an organisation is both a top-down and a bottom-up matter. The Alliance guidance is focused on government and agencies who are responsible for implementing supervision across departments. Yet I believe that all of us who work in social services have a duty to seek the support of a colleague or colleagues and to be honest about how we are getting on in our work, to find those people who understand the role, who will support us and help us improve.

So I’ll be pleased if what we've developed - Guidance Manual on Strengthening Supervision for the Social Service Workforce - can get more people talking about supervision and doing it. Whatever setting we work in, wherever in the world, social service work is personal, it involves working with oppressed groups and people in trouble and often in distress. It is vital we don’t become hardened to trauma, exclusion and injustice. And we must be accountable – are we doing the work we say we are doing – and how are we doing it? We don’t just want to ‘help’ though, we want to empower – it’s pretty demanding to get all that right! Sitting down with a senior colleague or a peer, or in a group – where the agenda is our practice - can be uncomfortable at times. But if we are open-minded and realise we need this space to do the job better, then sitting down with an experienced and supportive person is a good place to be.

Let’s get it in the diary!

Nicole Brown's picture

COVID-19 Resources for the Social Service Workforce

A well-supported, appropriately equipped, empowered, and protected social service workforce is essential to mitigating the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social service workers can build on their existing strong ties to children, families, and communities to rapidly respond in ways that are effective.This page includes COVID-19 resources specific to mental health and psychosocial support,child protectioncase managementalternative caregender-based violenceservice provision to vulnerable populationsworking within communities and across sectorscommunications and key messages, and webinars and trainings.

Technical Note: Social Service Workforce Safety and Wellbeing during the COVID-19 Response

COVID Technical Note Cover Image

Our technical note Social Service Workforce Safety and Wellbeing during the COVID-19 Response provides guidance and recommended actions to support the social service workforce and empower them to safely serve children, families, and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The document is a collaboration between the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, UNICEF, International Federation of Social Workers and Alliance for Children Protection in Humanitarian Action.

A webinar was held to review the technical note and learn from country-specific examples of how they are supporting the workforce by developing remote supervision, criteria for determining in-person or remote case management and advocacy strategies to government for workers to be protected and recognized as essential service providers. The full recording and presentations are now available for download

Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) tools:

Child protection resources:

Case management resources:

Alternative care and separated children:

Gender-based violence:

Service provision to vulnerable populations:

Working within communities and across sectors:

Communications and key messages:

Webinars and Online Trainings

*We are updating this page as new resources are made available. 

Nicole Brown's picture

Policy and Funding Support for the Essential Role of the Social Service Workforce in the COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on individuals and communities, particularly those that have been historically marginalized. National social service systems in many countries have been stretched to respond. As a result, there is increasing recognition of the important role of social service workers, particularly in the areas of child protection, family strengthening, psychosocial support and mental health. To meet the heightened call for a range of services, many governments and non-governmental organizations have increased funding to hire and train more workers and have passed legislation to ensure continuity of services. 

How has your organization supported advocacy efforts for increased funding, greater recognition or policies to deem the social service workforce an essential service provider? Add your voices and engage in the conversation by contributing your comments on this page.

Covid-19 Ethiopia
Tirusew Getachew is a social worker at a quarantine centre in Ethiopia, where her work includes needs assessment, family tracing and family reunification. UNICEFEthiopia/2020/NahomTesfaye

Global advocacy for recognition as essential service providers
Multiple global entities have advocated for social workers and other social service workers to be considered essential service providers and are raising awareness of their daily work.

The Statement from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and a letter from the Group of Friends of Children and the SDGs, endorsed by more than 160 member states, highlight the importance of holistic COVID-19 response plans that ensure well-being and healthy development of children. It calls on national governments and multilateral institutions to work immediately to strengthen ‘child protection in COVID-19’ response frameworks and to provide sufficient donor support to implement these responses effectively. The statement calls for several actions including to: Designate members of the social service workforce (SSW) as essential to prevent and respond to child protection risks; Provide them with appropriate Infection Prevention and Control training, and equip them with personal protective equipment in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidance and national laws; and Ensure that resources are available for national governments and humanitarian actors to fully implement these responses, recognizing the traditional gaps in child protection funding in past humanitarian aid expenditures.

The Joint Leaders’ Statement from global organizations working to end violence against children “calls on governments, the international community and leaders in every sector to urgently respond with a united effort to protect children from the heightened risk of violence, exploitation and abuse as part of the broader response to COVID-19. Governments have a central role to play. They must ensure that COVID-19 prevention and response plans integrate age appropriate and gender sensitive measures to protect all children from violence, neglect and abuse. Child protection services and workers must be designated as essential and resourced accordingly. Working with and supporting governments, our collective response must include: maintaining essential health and social welfare services, including mental health and psychosocial support; providing child protection case management and emergency alternative care arrangements; ensuring social protection for the most vulnerable children and households; continuing care and protection for children in institutions; and communicating with and engaging parents, caregivers and children themselves with evidence-based information and advice.

As an example of advocacy and interagency coordination, the Ugandan government issued a declaration that district probation and community development officers should sit on district intersectoral COVID-19 task forces across the country. These staff are primarily professional social workers, and they are meant to highlight issues of child protection, gender based violence, disability and psychosocial support so that these issues are addressed by the COVID-19 task forces.

National policy support
In many countries, social service workers are advocating for their work to be considered essential so that services continue. Many professional associations and organizations have been successful in attaining recognition by governments for social service workers as frontline service providers in order to continue and adapt social services. 

Under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) in Malaysia, social service workers are considered among essential service providers. Funding has also been allocated for ongoing training and acquiring new skills and knowledge to meet new and increasing needs. 

In states and cities throughout the United States, social workers, case workers and other social service workers have been declared as essential service providers and given flexibility in determining continuity of services. 

When the government closed all social services in Romania, the social work association successfully lobbied ministers to overturn the decision. Then, mobile teams of local law enforcement and social service workers worked in tandem to increase door deliveries of basic food and hygiene products to vulnerable groups, including single parent households, Roma populations and children with disabilities. 

The National Association of Social Workers Uganda brought together many organizations to advocate for social service workers to be recognized as essential service providers and to obtain PPE and an allowance for those working at the quarantine centers. With an expected 2,500 people returning to Uganda from other countries, there is great need for psychosocial support at the quarantine centers. To assist with emergecy mobilization of qualified first responders, the Association is compiling a list of qualified social workers who are ready and able to respond. When the Child Helpline closed during lockdown, the Association and partners also advocated for it to reopen and be recognized as an essential service. 

The South African Council on Social Service Professionals, representing social workers and child and youth care workers, actively advocated to relevant ministries to ensure properly licensed practitioners are considered essential service providers to be able to continue meeting the needs of communities; safety of workers is taken into account by employers; and a permissive work environment is created to ensure maximum service excellence. They worked closely with the Minister on development of policies and directives for social service workers to continue services during lockdown. “I would like to pay special tribute to all our service workers, and particularly our social work professionals, all support staff, as well as professional volunteers, who are out there every day, working hard to ensure that services to the most vulnerable continue, whilst dealing with the personal health threat of contracting the coronavirus,” said Western Cape Minister of Social Development Sharna Fernandez

Guidance for Social Workers During Covid-19 Response in Malawi, developed by the Association of Social Workers in Malawi and UNICEF, provides categories of essential social services that must be continued to meet the needs of vulnerable people during COVID-19 and the essential promotive, preventative and responsive functions of the social service workforce. The guidance sets out instructions and key principles related to COVID-19 for all social workers and para-professionals in Malawi, and their employers in government and non- governmental organizations to safely support children, families, and communities; raise professional concerns and questions; and request appropriate support and guidance from employers. 

In the Philippines, Proclamation No. 922 authorized hazard pay to government personnel who physically reported to work during quarantine for COVID-19. Public social workers were among the cadres of workers and personnel eligible to receive hazard pay for each day they were physically reporting for work. 

Increasing workforce numbers and capacity
With COVID-19 funding from USAID, the Government of Cambodia has hired 20 new social workers (in addition to 17 already working in priority provinces for care reform) for four months to provide the additional support during COVID-19. With this new deployment, every province in the country now has a social worker. In particular, these workers are focusing on case management, child protection and prevention of family separation. 

In Bangladesh, where there was an increase of four times the number of calls to the Child Helpline between February and April, UNICEF advocated to the government to reopen child courts, continue birth registration and hire more workers. The country had 3,000 social service workers before the onset of COVID-19 but needs at least 80,000 to meet typical needs. Online training was conducted for new social workers who were hired to assist the Child Helpline center, support institutions and places of detention, and work in key urban and field locations. Advocacy efforts resulted in social workers being considered as essential, critical and lifesaving. 

With 170,263 children affected by COVID-19 school closures in Bhutan, the Ministry of Education activated the Education Emergency Operation Centre under which a mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) sub desk was created. To ensure the provision of MHPSS to children, parents and caregivers in need, 147 school counsellors from 20 districts were each assigned a set number of schools to work with. With support from UNICEF, a guidance note on provision of remote PSS to parents and caregivers in Bhutan was developed to support the counsellors and other front liners working with families. All 147 school counsellors (80 male and 76 female) have been trained on how to provide psychosocial support remotely to parents and caregivers and face to face structured psychosocial support to children once the schools reopen. Laja Wangchuk, a participant, said, “The training helped me enhance my professional service delivery in time of the emergency. Especially at this COVID-19 emergency period, students, staff, parents and general public are stressed out more than the usual.” 

In South Africa, a database has been launched for unemployed and graduated social workers to enroll to help in filling roles and hiring of qualified workers. Additionally, a partnership between the National Department of Social Development, HWSETA and University of the Witwatersrand Health Consortium is placing 1,210 newly qualified social work graduates in social development and health roles. 

Community Social Workers (CSW) are a part of the frontline workforce in Armenia. In April 2020, the “Community Level Access to Social Services” (CLASS) project, funded by USAID/DCOF, conducted a needs assessment in the communities to have a clear picture of the CSW role in the communities during the COVID-19 pandemic under the conditions of the lockdown. CSWs work for local governments in a village or cluster of villages with a population of 5,000 or more. Through the end of April, 14,933 families received services, including support in applying for state programs/ resources, referrals to public organizations /programs, financial support, emergency care packages and home visits. In response to the vastly increased workload and burnout of the community social workers who started working 24/7, four additional senior social workers were hired. They keep in touch with the CSWs assigned to them on a daily basis and provide educational, professional and supportive supervision. World Vision is providing training and technical supervision to these 86 CSWs. 

COVID-19 is taking a toll on the mental health & psychosocial well-being of children & caregivers. UNICEF is also supporting governments in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania to strengthen the capacity of social workers to provide MHPSS services and deliver other interventions. And in Ethoipia, UNICEF is working closely with the Addis Ababa Bureau of Women, Children and Youth for recruitment, training and deployment of social workers in quarantine centers.

The Iran Association of Social Workers established a system for direct consultative and supervision support to social workers by enlisting 60 university professors and managers of social organizations. A list of specialized areas, available times and mobile phone numbers were provided to social workers to connect with them. The Association also provided an update to the President of Iran on social workers’ responses during the pandemic to gain greater support. 

Integration of social and health services
When social service workers are included in integrated health services and work alongside health workers and other allied workforces, everyone wins. During this unprecedented public health pandemic, social service workers are once again proving the essential, frontline role they play in caring for and protecting individuals and communities. The Alliance recently conducted a survey to gain insight on how social service workers are responding during COVID-19. Survey results show that 28% of social service workers are supporting health staff in provision of health services. 

Medical social workers in Nigeria
Medical social workers in Nigeria

Medical social workers in Nigeria are working alongside health workers as frontline workers by providing psychosocial support and community contact tracing. In Colombia, the government launched a cross-institutional social and health framework with the goal of providing better services in order to reduce the high child mortality rates associated with all types of violence. Evidence from South Africa has shown that including child protection alongside health services contributes to supporting HIV prevention goals. These lessons are being applied to the current COVID-19 response to ensure that the work of the social service workforce is included in health responses. 

In Croatia, workers are prioritizing services to middle and high-risk families, and based on case manager assessments, families at high risk are supported with face-to-face services. To meet the growing needs for responsive services to respond to reports of family violence, the Ministry has established special crisis teams. 

Resources to Increase Support
To support social service workers in advocacy efforts for greater planning, development and support while ensuring safety and well-being during the COVID-19 response, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has collaborated with the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, UNICEF and IFSW on a technical note. The Safety and Wellbeing of the Social Service Workforce during COVID-19 Response: Recommended Actions outlines how a well-supported, appropriately equipped, empowered, and protected social service workforce is essential to mitigating the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document also  provides guidance on how to support the social service workforce and empower them to safely serve children, families, and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has developed advocacy materials to support the workforce in advocating for increased support, including a Global Advocacy Toolkit for the Social Service Workforce and a Call to Action: Strengthening the Social Service Workforce to Better Protect Children and Achieve the SDGs

Several other technical notes also call for recognition for child protection and other roles of the social service workforce to be designed as essential, including: COVID-19: Protecting Children from Violence, Abuse, and Neglect in the Home; Working with Communities to Keep Children Safe; and Protection of Children during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Children and Alternative Care. Other technical notes relevant to the social service workforce can be found on the Alliance website.

Share Wins for the Social Service Workforce
This is an unprecedented time to advocate for the social service workforce. The International Federation of Social Workers, in a recent article, noted the speed at which change is taking place regarding recognition of the role of social workers, stating, “Change in the delivery of social services normally takes years. There are exceptions, where political direction coincides with the aspirations of the communities and social services workforce, but these are rare. The journey over the last five months is something new: a change at global level caused by a pandemic, where social workers have been and continue to be at the forefront advocating and leading change in nearly every country.” 

It is important to capture and highlight achievements that are happening at such speed. This blog only begins to list the many policy and funding wins achieved by the social service workforce due to their essential role during the COVID-19 response. We encourage everyone to share wins your organization or association has helped to achieve so others can learn from these successes and together, we can jointly advocate for continued change. What advocacy efforts have you undertaken? How has the social service workforce received greater funding support or policy recognition? Add your voices and engage in the conversation by contributing your comments here.