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The dangers in digital – why safeguarding needs to keep up

If we have learned nothing else from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic it is that digital communication has become central to the way we share information, personally and professionally, and whilst much of it has positive outcomes in terms of reducing anxieties and social isolation there will, I am sure, be studies published, that will show that during the height of the pandemic, it did some real damage, and hid cases of abuse, and hate crime that have yet to fully surface.  The world of safeguarding needs to catch-up.

For most of us, Zoom and Teams meetings became the default way we in which we continued to work in our professional roles, with Facetime, What’sApp, YouTube, TikTok and a plethora of other social media channels providing us with much needed visible and welcome contact for our colleagues, friends and family.

We discovered who had disruptive children and pets, and subversively studied colleagues’ wall papers, book cases, choice of art, and wondered who was wearing trousers!

Those of us, for whom digital communication had been a slowly learnt language over the last few years, were suddenly calling on our sons, daughters and younger colleagues to help us log-in, and suddenly we all looked like we knew what we were doing, before being told “You’re on mute”, or in one famous American legal case having to admit to a presiding judge that “I am not a cat” after his daughter had changed the profile filters.

We can laugh retrospectively, but there is a darker side to reducing face to face contact. For those most vulnerable, who we used to see attending Day Services, GP Surgeries, and community based social groups, Covid restrictions meant that they became invisible. Not everyone was able to go digital, or to be visible.

For those who did, the experience of my organisation, The BUILD Charity (a Norfolk based independent registered charity providing social, leisure and learning opportunities for anyone, with any disability aged 16 or over in Norfolk) has shaped the way we will now work in the future.

Whilst the world locked-down and went almost entirely digital in March 2020 we found that the adults with disabilities that we support, faced a number of issues. Some had no digital access, or abilities, some relied on family or paid carers as “gatekeepers” who determined what information they received, and some, with the digital access and knowledge, found their reliance on social media for “news” left them anxious and confused.

So how did we ensure that we kept people safe, on-line and off-line?

We quickly moved to offer three styles of service, on-line, by phone and by post. We identified those who could access, and those who wanted to access which model, and those that wanted a hybrid. We prioritised those without digital access for phone and postal support, but found that even those who could engage digitally still needed human contact. Real voices, and familiar faces were a great comfort based on the feedback we received.

Reducing the risk of inappropriate on-line contact from persons known

Whilst trying to get people to engage with each other to reduce social isolation, we retained, and re-enforced the close controls over the sharing of personal contact details, we kept a close eye on what content we produced and shared, particularly where it was produced by third parties, or shared links, and we kept open a variety of contact channels to stay in touch. Where people thought it would be “great” to stay in touch, we acted as filters ensuring that we had multiple consents before sharing access.

We also used our “Call and Connect” service, (a weekly telephone call to the most vulnerable and digitally excluded), to do welfare checks, find out who they had been in contact with, and give them an outlet to raise any concerns they might have had.

Reducing the risk of inappropriate on-line contact from persons unknown

We provided access for those able to engage digitally with websites, organisations, and materials which could provide support, reduce social isolation, or provide validated information, by thoroughly checking out those sources before we shared them.

Regular contact, with follow-ups

We paired people with disabilities, who were often shielding, with telephone based volunteers, but operated a model that required feedback from both parties to raise any issues or concerns that we discussed internally.

Friend or Fraud?

We offered an on-line informal workshop that explored the concept of “friendship” looking at the difference between a digital contact that you have never met, and someone you can trust, and knew before the pandemic. This provided guidance and warnings about people offering friendship, services, support, or their take on Covid facts, through on-line engagement against tried and trusted contacts who you could phone, or meet (as restrictions allowed) as well as reputable sources of fact.

These were not “new ways of working” in safeguarding, but adapting our service offer, safely.

In a world where a Facebook whistle-blower is now meeting the family of a child who took her own life because she felt she didn’t fit in, and easily accessed suicide tips from social media, and a world where our access to digital content, good, bad and indifferent is in our pockets, and in our own hands, that traditional model of the abuser being a stranger in the dark, has long gone.

Our approach to safeguarding has to be on-line and in-person. We must ensure that our staff, our volunteers, our law makers, protectors and prosecutors catch-up, and keep up to date with new technology. It is changing faster than we are.

 James Kearns

Chief Executive – The BUILD Charity

Board Member – Norfolk Adult Safeguarding Board

November 2021