Dec. 7, 2020

Study examines impact of COVID-19 on Alberta Children's Services social workers

Province-wide research looks to understand effects of pandemic on child service workers and the children and families they serve
Heather Boynton, PhD
Boynton's research looks at the impact of COVID on children's services social workers and families courtesy Heather Boynton

When we think of first responders, we usually think of people on the frontlines: emergency responders, doctors, nurses, police officers and firefighters. However, Dr. Heather Boynton, PhD, thinks we should also include those working to help families and children ­— especially during a pandemic.

“So, you think of first responders as those who have experienced and witnessed that physical or biological trauma,” says Boynton, “But people in the mental health field are experiencing mental health and psychological trauma firsthand, as well as layers of grief and loss. However, they’re not recognized as first responders. When COVID-19 first came to Alberta and everything started to close down, we wondered about those effects for child service workers, as well as the children and families they serve.”

Boynton, a researcher at the Faculty of Social Work’s Edmonton campus, will tackle this question using a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Engage grant for her project COVID-19: Children's Intervention Services: Exploring the Lived Experience of Alberta Children's Services' Social Workers during COVID-19. 

The grant is being co-led by social work professor Dr. Patricia Samson, PhD, and will include fellow faculty members Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD, Dr. David Nicholas, PhD, Julie Mann-Johnson, as well as Dr. Jo-Ann Vis from Lakehead University, and Anna Perry from Alberta Children’s Services.

People in the mental health field are experiencing mental health and psychological trauma firsthand, as well as layers of grief and loss. However, they’re not recognized as first responders.

The province-wide study is recruiting focus groups in a number of locations to better understand what the experience was like for social workers in each location and the differences that emerged between these locations.

“We want to look at rural and urban,” says Boynton. “We also want to target some places that got hit really hard in the beginning with COVID cases, and other places that didn't — but were impacted by some of the policies that perhaps got in the way and weren't yet necessary for their locations. Maybe there were different approaches that would have worked better as opposed to a blanket approach. Because we know that often when policies happen in larger urban centres, they sometimes don't make sense in smaller places. We want to understand how COVID policies have played out for smaller communities.”

Policy change suggestions

Combing through these responses, the research team hopes to be able to suggest possible policy changes while better understanding the needs of children’s services' social workers and the families and children they work to support.

For more insight for this participatory-action research, the team is partnering with Anna Perry, BSW’99, a manager with Alberta Children's Services. Working directly with social workers, the team hopes to ensure that the right questions are being asked as well as understanding what social workers need in the future. The project also hopes to capture what’s been going well and what needs to change in the future.

“We know that in crisis situations, people get creative and innovative,” says Boynton. “There's strength that happens. So, we also want to know about that. We want to know, 'How did you manage? What did you do? Is there anything creative that came out of it?' We want to find out about those things and celebrate them.”

The team is in the process of arranging focus groups and hopes to host them in Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Brooks. As with any research she’s not sure what the groups will tell her but says she expects a range of stories, some dark and some hopeful.

“Well, we have heard some stories about impacts on children,” she says. “I'm not sure exactly what will happen, but it's always tough to be in a position where you have to remove a child from their home. And how is that during a pandemic? And what does that look like in terms of isolation and not being able to visit family — or having to be in 14-day isolation period?

“I have a feeling there's going to be some very difficult stories. But I've also heard of creativity. People who have organized drive-by parades or workers who have stood outside a bedroom window and communicated with children, or done things over the phone, or played games over a laptop. We want to know how difficult has it been? What are some of those stories that are really hard and really distressing, and then also what are some of those really cool things that might've happened?”