How do we safeguard children and young people when working remotely? 

An online space still needs to be a safe space.” Youth Work Support, 2020

The safety and wellbeing of clients is the main priority, but we also need to be supportive and pragmatic to respond to these unprecedented circumstances.” - BACP, 2020

Try not to be over-anxious and trust your existing skills and knowledge, but also listen to your instincts and seek advice if you have concerns.” BACP, 2020

This is something you’ll need to think about at every moment when you’re working with young people online, and as you may have found, it’s more difficult to ensure safeguards are in place from afar. Youth Work Support (a joint initiative from NYA, The Mix, UK Youth and FDYW) says this will need ‘a whole organisation approach’, with safeguarding officers involved in any planning or reviews of your online work. 

What can you do to ensure that the young people you’re working with are safe?  


Before your first remote session

Carry out a risk assessment

See What are the risks involved? in this toolkit for suggestions on what to consider and templates. 

Update your client agreements

  • Update your contracts with each young person, adding clauses necessary to cover differences in the delivery of therapy.  
  • You will need the consent of young people:  
    • To take part in digital or telephone therapy  
    • To process their data under GDPR rules 
  • You can send the updated contract as an email attachment and get consent verbally (making sure to always keep a dated record of verbal agreements) or in writing.

 

Consent

Whilst young people aged 13+ (12+ in Scotland) are able to give consent to have their data processed, provided you feel they understand what it is they are consenting to, most online platforms having a 16+ age limit. This means that even if they can have their data processed they can't have it processed via that tool. 

 As such, parental consent is advised wherever possible for people under 16. For those using devices owned by someone else, create "a three-way contract" with the person that owns the device. Clarify with the young person in advance whether it’s ok to do so and take ethical considerations into account if the young person refuses.  

If it is identified that the risks associated with seeking consent outweigh the benefits then, it may be possible to offer a service to a young person under 16 without parental consent: again, this highlights the paramount importance of a thorough risk assessment and the documentation of decisions made.

Key resources

 

Plan in case of an emergency

  • You should also think carefully about what you will do in the event of an emergency, or if they young person requires additional support – for example, because they have become distressed. 
  • Make sure you’re clear from the offset what your service is directly responsible for, what you will do to seek additional support in an emergency, and where the young person is responsible. It’s a good idea to signpost additional support guidance and resources, as well as emergency support services. 

Before each session

1. Check for location and emergency contacts

  • Check you know the exact location of the young people you’re working with before the session and obtain emergency contacts.  
  • Make sure you have the young person’s full name, address, phone numbers, email and date of birth for safeguarding/risk involving authorities. This is especially necessary for organisations and individuals working cross-border. 

2. Make sure the young person is in a private space

Check that the young person will be joining the call from a private space at home. Headphones are recommended to help prevent others from overhearing conversations.  

3. Have your Designated Safeguarding Lead on standby

The BACP recommends scheduling sessions "in normal working hours to ensure the availability of support services". However, Youth Access’ Going Digital guide advises that some counsellors and management should be available during evening and weekends, in addition to usual working hours, to ensure response times – and this chimes with the positive experience of at least one Youth Access YIACS which has extended its therapeutic support to also include Saturdays, in response to the needs of young people. We recommend that as long as a designated safeguarding lead is available to be contacted, sessions can be scheduled at members’ discretion.  

4. Make sure the young person is prepared for the call 

Send out information in advance to prepare young people for their remote session. You may want to include: 

  • How sessions will be arranged. 
  • Instructions on how to join the call, including information on the technology they might need to get the most out of the session, whether any software needs to be installed in advance, and different ways they can engage during the call (eg video on/off, typing in the chat function).
  • How to set up their space – eg advice to find a quiet space where they feel they can talk freely, remove distractions, use headphones, blur background. For some young people, going for a walk or sitting in their parents’ car might be an alternative way to achieve confidentiality. 
  • What the session will involve – eg, will it be interactive, will the young person be expected to prepare anything? 
  • Information, further reading or resources that young people might like to look at beforehand.
  • If the young person is concerned or unsure about remote therapy, the Early Intervention Foundation suggests sharing success stories of how you’ve been able to support other young people.
  • What the young person can do if they are interrupted during the session 
  • Back-up plans if the technology fails. 
  • A reminder to keep therapeutic conversations separate from email or text correspondence. 

BACP have provided an example client information sheet for clients taking part in video (Zoom) sessions, which you can use as a template and adapt to your needs.

5. In addition, for group sessions

  • Make sure that only hosts can share their screen (this is to prevent any uninvited guests from sharing any inappropriate or explicit content). 
  • Ensure that the any private chat function is switched off, so that participants can only message either the host or everyone in the group, and are not able to message one another privately. 
  • If you plan to share your screen, close any other tabs or programmes that won’t be used in the session, paying particular attention to anything that might reveal sensitive personal information or inappropriate content.
  • Arrange to have two staff online where possible. 
  • If hosting a group youth work session, you might decide that it would be helpful to record the call so that you can use the footage for marketing purposes or to share the footage with young people who were unable to make the call. If this is the case, make sure you inform young people you are doing this at the start of the call. Ask for verbal consent on the call and then follow up with each participant after the call to confirm their consent to share and store the footage (in encrypted storage drives or USBs), as you would with any media release.

During each session

1. Make sure you’re not being overheard

  • Ensure that you’re not being overheard or that someone isn’t present in your remote sessions without the knowledge of the young person on the call. Do you need a lock on your door to ensure your session won’t be disturbed? 
  • It is recommended that you, as well as the young person, wear headphones, to limit the possibility of others overhearing your conversation. 

2. Set up your space

  • Make sure there are no distractions or anything personally identifiable behind you. Where possible find a natural space to take the call, against a neutral background with no personal items in the picture. Some video platforms allow you to choose a digital background or blur your background. Or, you can use a tool like Unscreen 
  • Wear suitable clothing.
  • Make sure your light source is not directly to your side or behind you. 

3. Check again that the young person is in a private, confidential space

  • Make sure the young person is in a private space, where they won’t be interrupted or overheard. 
  • Also note that a young person’s access to a confidential space can change from session to session and during your call with them. If you are not sure whether they are still in a confidential space, check with them. Again, agree on a safe word they can use in advance so they can discretely tell you in the moment if their confidential space has been compromised.   

4. Adapt your behaviour and communication style 

The Early Intervention Foundation and NHS England and NHS Improvement make the following recommendations to practitioners providing support remotely: 

5. Keep an eye out for warning signs

Actively check how young people are experiencing remote support and keep an eye out for any issues that might not be immediately obvious, such as a lack of privacy at home, inability to connect during remote sessions, disinhibition. 

 

Should we be recording?

  • The legal advice and guidance on this are unclear. As mentioned above, you might decide that it would be helpful to record a group youth work call for marketing purposes or to share the footage with young people who were unable to make the call – again, this would require the consent of the young people participating in the call.
  • For therapeutic work and safeguarding purposes many organisations, including Youth Access, have made the decision that sufficient training, risk assessment, client/group agreements, and other infrastructures such as incident reports, session notes and supervision practice, should be enough to carry out your remote therapeutic work safely without recording.
  • You may want to consider developing policies which help to mitigate risk without having to record the call, for example having at least two practitioners facilitating a session.

Key safeguarding links

  • If you have a safeguarding concern, follow your organisation’s safeguarding procedures. If you would like further guidance or support you can call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000, make a report online or email them at help@nspcc.org.uk. You can also seek anonymous advice from the young person’s local authority.   

Next section: How do we maintain boundaries with young people on social media?