A new report published in April by child welfare professionals concludes that social workers find the internet useful for work, but are unclear about how it should be used in a child welfare setting.

Co-authored by social work professors Melanie Sage, Melissa Wells, Todd Sage, and Mary Devlin, the report recommends issuing guidelines for child protection and family professionals. This echoes what Researching Reform suggested in March, when we raised concerns about online methods used to track and trace families and children in care proceedings. In our post we urged the President of The Family Division Sir James Munby to issue a Guidance Note without delay. We also think UK based research like this report would be a welcome development to offer more insight here.

An extract from the paper tells us:

“This analysis examines the role of agency policy and supervision in the decision-making of child welfare workers about their work-related social media use. Data were collected using a mixed-methods internet-based survey of 171 child welfare workers and interns about their social media use related to their direct-practice work with child welfare clients. The study finds that supervisor approval and agency policy is correlated with worker’s social media use, and that workers find utility in social media use, but have poor clarity about how they should use social media in the child welfare work setting. These results suggest a need for agency policy and practice guidelines. Implications for child welfare agencies include an opportunity to consider the types of policy development necessary to ensure that multiple stakeholders are represented in policy and practice decisions, and that they reflect the possible benefits and risks of social media use.”

The information within this publication is astounding, both for its depth of knowledge – it cites the latest research and data available on the adoption of social media within the child protection sector – and its scope. From the risks social media poses to practitioners thinking about engaging online to the benefits of its use, such as the opportunities it offers for practice driven innovation, it is a must read for family professionals.

Some thought-provoking ideas from the paper:

  • “The utility-driven use of social media… offers the opportunity for practice-driven innovation, instead of the top-down agency-driven technology mandates which workers often find as disruptive to their practice.”
  • ” [A] study of the acceptability of videoconferencing via Skype for visits between children in foster care and their siblings or parents found that child welfare workers generally thought it was an acceptable practice, and some were already using it.”
  • “Another concern relates to safety and privacy issues… Factors for consideration include informed consent, confidentiality, verifying identity, and avoiding disclosure of confidential client identification.”
  • “Child welfare workers report that they access social media to aid in risk assessment, and sometimes generally to learn about clients.”
  • “Ethical issues also arise related to a client’s right to privacy… and potential relationship harm caused by this type of information use.”

More controversially, a significant percentage of those surveyed admitted to searching for clients online:

  • Over half of the workers (58%) reported that searching for a client on Facebook out of curiosity was acceptable in some situations and 43% reported that they had done this.
  • Over half of workers (53%) stated that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on Facebook that the agency would like to locate, such as a missing parent and about half (49%) had done this.
  • 61% of the child welfare workers stated that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on a site like Facebook when the information might give insight into client risk factors and close to half (46%) had done this.
  • About 65% of the child welfare workers reported that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on a site like Facebook when conducting a child welfare investigation or assessment and about a third had done this.

Whilst the research was conducted in America, there are clear parallels between the US and the UK: we know that child welfare professionals in the UK are using the internet to contact and even monitor families.

The use of social media within family work was broached by the British Association Of Social Workers in 2012, with an initial document outlining their stance on Social Media Policy  and Child Protection Practice. It’s a good basic working document which outlines the fundamentals of online content, privacy and professional conduct, however it doesn’t adequately address the evolving issues surrounding service users, and so input from the President is necessary to ensure that all topics are covered and clear guidelines are available to everyone.

We’ve added some articles below on social media use in a child welfare context:

The full report, which is called “Supervisor and policy roles in social media use as a new technology in child welfare”, can be accessed if you’re accredited or if you’re happy to pay the download fee. Essentially, the research calls for better guidance on social media use, guidance which would benefit social work practice globally.

A very big thank you to Melanie Sage for offering Researching Reform the report in full and to  Dennis North for alerting us to this publication.

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