The Unheld Child: Social Work, Social Distancing and the Possibilities and Limits to Child Protection during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Harry Ferguson, Sarah Pink, Laura Kelly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


The COVID-19 pandemic changed dramatically the ways social workers engaged with children and families. This article presents findings from our research into the effects of COVID-19 on social work and child protection in England during the first nine months of the pandemic. Our aim is to provide new knowledge to enable realistic expectations of what it was possible for social workers to achieve and particularly the limits to child protection. Such perspective has become more important than ever due to knowledge of children who died tragically from abuse despite social work involvement during the pandemic. Our research findings show how some practitioners got physically close to some children, whilst being distanced from others. We examine the dynamics that shaped closeness and distance and identify seven influences that created limits to child protection and the problem of 'the unheld child'. The article provides new understandings of child protection as embodied, multi-sensorial practices and the ways anxiety and experiences of bodily self-alienation limit practitioners' capacities to think about and get close to children. Whilst social workers creatively improvised to achieve their goals, coronavirus and social distancing imposed limits to child protection that no amount of innovative practice could overcome in all cases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2403-2421
Number of pages19
JournalThe British Journal of Social Work
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2022


  • child abuse
  • child protection
  • coronavirus
  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • home visits
  • reflective practice
  • social work
  • the body

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