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  • Writer's pictureDavid Whewell

Detached Youth Work Practice during COVID-19 (Webinar)

NYA & FDYW Detached Youth Work webinar, 17/04/20

Government guidance has led to the closure of youth centres. Most staff who worked in these centres have turned their attention to digital / virtual youth work, including face-to-face sessions on platforms like Zoom. ‘Digital poverty’ is however a very real issue, and many young people have limited or no access to technology. There is also a concern that young people are also being overwhelmed with technological interventions and some are suffering from ‘screen fatigue’[i]. One detached worker reports feedback from a young person: “Everyone is talking about digital engagement; it’s like being in a room with everyone you know all wanting a conversation at once, when actually what I want is a ‘quiet screen’.” A balanced approach is needed, based on ‘digital well-being’.

A more pertinent context for detached youth work is that very few of those children and young people who have been allocated actually attend. Fewer than 5% of those identified as ‘vulnerable’ are in school, and fewer than 2% of the children of key workers are present. In addition, Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) have largely closed, and staff are struggling to maintain contact with pupils. It is therefore abundantly clear that some other form of engagement is essential – and that detached youth work and community work offer something uniquely valuable at this time.

By contrast, many detached youth workers continue to work in the community, with an adapted and more structured approach. To be able to do this, they have had to secure essential status at a local level, in consultation with local authority COVID-19 hubs, the police (particularly Neighbourhood Policing Teams), Children’s Social Care, Public Health and other key agencies. An aim of the hubs us to share information, and yet some detached workers report this is difficult to access. Certainly, community and service mapping, particularly as things change, are vital to understanding how best to support young people and ensure services are accessible to them. These maps will be also important also for informing ‘post-COVID-19’ work.

Not all detached workers have been able to continue their work; in some areas the police have told them they cannot work on the streets. This is because youth work is not on the government’s list of essential services – an issue the Federation for Detached Youth Work is working to address with the National Youth Agency (NYA). The NYA, in turn, is consulting with the Police and Crime Commissioners national lead for young people and government (DCMS) to lobby for youth work’s essential status[ii]. Detached youth workers in particular need to be identified as key workers. All those who work in this area agree that the emphasis should be on supporting young people, rather than criminalising them.

Some detached workers have, in the end, been provided with letters by the hubs, which are recognised by the police, should there be any doubt they have permission to work. Work in this policing context has, at times, been challenging, particularly as the work of detached youth workers can be interpreted as encouraging young people to ‘hang around’. Rather, workers have been proactive on explaining the aims and purposes of youth work, and report that partners, especially the police, now “get” youth work and recognise its effectiveness.

Detached youth workers often have to work with young people who do not have positive relationships with the police; this requires careful management of professional relationships and partnership-working arrangements. Best practice suggests that protocols should be negotiated. Two issues are particularly pertinent at this time: generally, the police have no wish to criminalise young people and recognise that a friendly, non-authoritarian approach is preferable. As such, they often ask detached youth workers to go to areas where young people have been gathering. Many workers fear their relationships with young people will be undermined, however, if their contact is interpreted as a form of policing. Some have found that transparency has helped; they tell young people that the police are concerned that they are not abiding by social distancing guidance and do not wish to be heavy-handed. There is a lack of clarity about whether the police can fine young people for non-compliance. In some areas, fines have had to be revoked as the new Coronavirus legislation does not have a remit for young people.

On the streets, there has been an emphasis on keeping safe and secure, and encouraging young people to do the same. Dynamic risk assessments are necessary. The Federation for Detached Youth Work has written guidance for workers on how to do this. Workers are social distancing, and find that they are able to educate young people by modelling this behaviour. Some even use tape measures as a trigger for conversations about social distancing and to provide further tangible evidence of what that looks like. Conversations are kept to a minimum; this also ensures that detached youth work cannot be interpreted as giving young people cause to leave their homes in order to congregate.

Shorter sessions and limiting the time spent in conversation with both young people and the wider community means detached workers have to work in a more structured way. Many workers have changed their focus, from trying to build and maintain relationships with young people, to engaging and educating young people to understand the impact of COVID-19 and adhere to government guidance on social distancing. Their approach has been to prioritise checking on young people’s welfare and encouraging them to stay indoors, where they are safe to do so. They are then also able to contact social services where there are fears they are not – in extremis there should be ‘refuge’ spaces locally available for young people; others will need bereavement support. They are well placed to encourage young people to use the time allotted for exercise safely – getting some fresh air is essential for health and well-being. Engaging young people and families in a conversation about the realities of COVID-19, and how to keep safe, is particularly important given that so many young people are afraid to go out. Conversely, other young people continue to meet in often large groups, and need to be engaged in different kinds of conversations, that encourage critical thinking.

Detached youth workers often work with vulnerable young people on the boundaries of social care, offering Early Help and trying to intervene to head off problems down the line. In order to do this, current practice – given its limitations – has had to adopt a family and community approach. Where appropriate, workers are directing young people, and their parents and carers, to other services and on-line support. They are working with Locality Managers to assess risk, and making visits to some families on behalf of Social Care.

Detached workers are deeply concerned about the hidden impact of the crisis, given, for example, a rise in domestic violence (which is so often a proxy for wider child / familial abuse and neglect). In this important sense, workers continue to draw attention to often hidden problems and inequalities, and point out that whilst the crisis has created new problems for many children, young people and families, for others, their problems are long-standing and merely exacerbated. Interventions are diverse, from providing emotional support to the delivery of food and home resource / activity packs designed to entertain, educate and challenge young people. Many of these packs have been paid for through local authority funds. Some workers have been able to access new crisis funding regimes.

Detached youth workers’ thoughts also turn to the future. What can be learnt from this experience and the impact of COVID-19 about how children and young people are educated and supported? Of the things they have long since done, which have stood the test of time, and which need to be rethought, done differently? There is a need to start to plan and shape services for the future on the basis of this learning. Guidelines will be needed to assist in both a ‘recovery phase’ and with advocating for detached youth work going forward. Workers will need to be vigilant about new policing powers and ensure these do not impact children’s rights. Above all, this is a time to share ideas and good practice; these will constitute essential data in advancing the recognition and understanding of the theories, practice and value of detached youth work amongst the widest range of stakeholders now, into the future, and during further times of crisis.

[i] Sue Palmer Toxic Childhoods [ii] Both now and into the future, where securing statutory status and resources is a long-standing demand

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