Marketing and Communications Manager, Joyce Khan, recently caught up with colleagues from The Fed’s Community Advice and Support team (CAST) – Manager, Sara Ogden-Thomson and Community Support Worker, Zoe Guerrier.  

She asked how lockdown has affected their professional practice. What new difficulties has the pandemic brought up for those in need of our support and for the team in responding to their requests for help?  

“I worry that people might be struggling with things that we are missing,” voices a concerned Zoe who joined CAST 9 years ago after more than a decade as a sessional worker for Project Smile.  

“We are a very practical, ‘hands on’ team,” explains Sara.  “We’re trained and experienced in face to face contact with people.  This is how we quickly establish the trusting relationships needed to enable us to help people. It’s fundamental to social work. But COVID-19 has forced us to work in a more detached way. It’s a frustration and worry for all the team.”  

 Zoe elaborates: “When we go and see a new client in their home, we can observe how they live. We pick up on cues and body language which tell us if they are struggling. What state is the home in? Does it look chaotic? Are there signs of there not being enough food in the house? Of inappropriate spending?  Issues with the children’s diet? Any indication of neglect of physical abuse? 

We pay attention to so much that helps us detect if something’s amiss, and if there is, we gently coax a client to open up.  We may need to challenge them, but that is only so that we can then offer them the support and strategies that help them make positive choices.   

The pandemic has forced the team to work quite differently with home visits limited to doorstep calls to drop off toys, books and activity sets to keep the kids occupied and have a chat. It can delay the building of trust and take longer for the full picture to emerge.

Despite the ban on home visiting Sara, Zoe and fellow team members have been providing regular support during lockdown with greater emphasis on providing support over the phone which is backed up by email, texting and ZOOM calls.  

Lockdown has created a surge in referrals to CAST, many with a common theme as Sara explains, “We’ve had a lot of requests for help in dealing with children’s very difficult behaviour especially from lone parents who’ve been really struggling to cope and larger families who have a child with a learning need.”   

Zoe continues, “I think a lot of the problem stems from parents and children having no respite from each other, and this has increased stress levels all round. Parental anxiety about the pandemic also impacts on their ability to manage their children’s behaviour. 

“We’ve been supporting parents who are already known to our team due to problems with their children’s challenging behaviour, or their own mental health issues, and as well as new clients who have had no previous identified issues or contact with us.   

“One family has young children who have been physically abusing the mother, throwing things, being destructive and verbally abusive. Others have young teenagers who have been absconding at night and ignoring lockdown restrictions.  

“We help parents set boundaries and put routines in place at a time when homelife has often become extremely disorganised with no ‘shape’ to the day or week.  

“We talk to people about ‘taking a step back’ and walking away from the situation to let go of their own anger. This can feel totally counterintuitive when they may want to react forcefully. We encourage them to give their child space; to offer rewards for positive behaviour; we suggest activities to do together.  

We motivate them to write to the child – maybe pushing a note under the bedroom door or texting them to reassure them of their lovethat the parent is still ‘there for them’ and letting the child know, ‘I’m here when you’re ready.’ It’s difficult for a child to come back from an angry place but this allows the parent to open the door.”    

Sara adds, “As well as the rise in cases of parents struggling with their children’s behaviour, the team has been very busy with a range of other family casework – this could be anything from issues of financial and food poverty; grooming or drug abuse – and it’s challenging work requiring a great deal of experience and skill. 

 “At the same time, they have been keeping in regular phone contact with the parents of children who would usually attend our twice weekly Project Smile Play and Learn groups and play-schemes, for children with disabilities and additional needs.

They have really missed the break from caring and chance to recharge their batteries or spend quality time with their other children.  At the same time the youngsters who normally come to our children’s centre have lost out on a lot of fun and contact with their friends.  

“Before Shavuot we sent each Project Smile family a toy specific to the needs of the child, a game to play with siblings, information leaflets about mental wellbeing and Covid restrictions; where to get support etc, books from PJ Library and an individualised activity pack tailored to the child’s specific needs. These gifts were sponsored by a group of wonderful donors. We’ve also lent toys and specialist equipment out to families or helped them obtain charitable funding for this.   

“And all of this work has been achieved despite our team being separated and working from their kitchens and dining-rooms, in some cases balancing this with childcare. I’m very proud of all them. Despite the limitations they’ve done a tremendous job and served the community so well. But that’s only what I’d expect. They are a brilliant committed, truly professional bunch of people.”