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Innovating in the Age of COVID-19

Child Welfare Finds New Ways to Serve Children and Families

Ashley Lambert pours herself a cup of coffee each morning and checks her messages to see what the day will bring. Her workday routine hasn’t changed much since May—with one big difference.

“My commute is a lot shorter!” she said.

A lead social case worker with Denver Human Services, Lambert has been serving children and families for more than four years. Her mission is to protect children from abuse and neglect and support families in creating safe, stable environments that enable children to thrive.

Although the basic responsibilities of her job haven’t changed, Lambert is now working primarily from home, with some visits to families or the office. The transition happened quickly this spring, when Denver Human Services closed its offices to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“I fall into a high-risk category, and I’ve had to be vigilant about wearing a mask, washing my hands and social distancing,” Lambert said. “I try to be thoughtful about how I do my work, and I think our agency has taken the same intentional approach to protecting families and employees.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Denver Human Services Child Welfare team innovated quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the strategies are temporary measures, but others may be adopted long-term because of their benefit to children, families and employees.

Developing Family COVID-19 Plans

In addition to adapting its own operations, the Child Welfare team helped families prepare in case someone in the family contracted coronavirus. Case workers partnered with families to identify safe quarantine strategies, approved alternative caregivers, food access and preparation help and more. Through the planning, families mapped out their strengths and community supports, which families can also draw on for other life events.

In addition, the agency identified other resources families might need to stay connected and well during the pandemic. For example, the agency offered tablets to families without computers so parents could maintain visitations with their children while social distancing. Case workers also dropped off gift cards for Grub Hub or other services if they knew families would have trouble getting to the grocery store.

Meeting Safely in Person

Although Denver Human Services has moved most of its work online, in-person meetings are still taking place. Case workers are required to assess new concerns of abuse and neglect in person with all family members. Most monthly meetings for ongoing cases are occurring face to face as well, although there is a waiver allowing them to be conducted virtually. In-person home studies are also needed before new foster families can be certified.

In those instances, case workers walk through homes while families wait outside and have meetings outdoors or go on walks. The same approach is used for families who prefer to meet with their case workers face-to-face as part of their ongoing work together.

“We’re still actively involved in the community, but we offer virtual meetings as an option where we can,” said Josie Berry, Interim Director of Child Welfare and Adult Protection. “In addition to asking prescreening medical questions for everyone’s safety, we ask clients if they are comfortable having us come to their homes. We ask the same of our case workers, as we want everyone to feel safe and supported.”

Partnering with Families in a Virtual World

When face-to-face contact is not required or is not possible due to health concerns, Denver Human Services is offering most meetings or supports virtually, including:

  • Visitation meetings between parents and children
  • Therapy sessions of all kinds, including behavioral health, speech, physical therapy and more
  • Case worker meetings with foster families and children
  • Case worker meetings with parents
  • Foster parent support group meetings (in English and Spanish)
  • Caseworker meetings with children placed out of state
  • Family engagement meetings

The courts are also holding court hearings via videoconference. (Parents have the option of calling in by phone if they don’t have videoconference capabilities.) The new virtual option has increased participation, as parents no longer need to take hours off work, ride the bus or find help getting to court if their own cars aren’t working.  

In addition, families who qualify for food, medical or other types of assistance can complete their applications online. Denver Human Services offers document runners to pick up paper applications, if families don’t have computer and internet access.

For the most part, Lambert said, the virtual approach has worked well. It’s harder to engage very young children—or those with intellectual and developmental disabilities—but older children have adapted well to online therapy and visits. In fact, she said, teenagers are engaging more with their therapy, which may be because they feel safer and more comfortable talking to someone from the comfort of their own homes.

Attracting and Certifying Foster Parents During a Pandemic

Recruiting foster parents is always a priority at Denver Human Services, and employees wondered how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect their ability to attract and certify new families. Community outreach simply couldn’t be done in the same way, and monthly foster parent informational sessions could no longer be held in person.

Instead, the agency intensified its social media outreach and began offering Foster Care 101 Webinars virtually. The results have been encouraging. The foster care webinars have gained more participants, and the number of families who have submitted applications to become foster parents has increased as well.

“If you’re a working adult, it’s hard to come to our building for two hours on a weeknight for an informational session,” said Mollie Warren, Deputy Division Director of Child Welfare and Adult Protection. “It’s much easier to participate virtually, file your application and complete the training from home.”

Supporting the Team

The Child Welfare team’s internal collaboration has changed as well.

To ensure the team stays safe, connected, supported and well, the Child Welfare team holds a weekly town hall meeting for all staff members and facilitates daily check ins for small teams to recognize employees for their work and ask what they need. Informal virtual support groups are also meeting so employees can share their experiences and offer tips for coping with new challenges and stresses.

Although team members miss interacting face to face, the new approach has some benefits, Lambert said.

“It’s been helpful to hold some of our staff meetings virtually. It’s been easier to schedule them when we’re not driving in from different directions and fighting traffic, and we may want to maintain that flexibility in the future.”

Embracing New Approaches to Increase Engagement and Safety

Other strategies implemented in response to COVID-19 may have long-term value as well, Berry said.

“The move to virtual work has had an impact on accessibility,” she said. “Often, we required clients to come to us to do certain things, such as attend court or participate in facilitated family meetings, and we can now do those things online.  We have built the capacity for clients to participate virtually in a way that is much more convenient for them.”

Those virtual approaches may have long-term benefits for child safety and wellness, too. So far, Denver Human Services has not seen an increase in child abuse and neglect during the pandemic, which may be in part because case workers, therapists, family members and others are seeing children regularly over videoconferencing, although children are less visible in the community overall because of social distancing.

Even after the COVID-19 threat passes, Lambert hopes videoconferencing will continue to be employed for interim case worker check-ins throughout the month and as a way for parents to connect more frequently with their children in between supervised in-person visits.

“It’s another way we can see how children are doing and strengthen our partnership with families,” she said.

Above all, she hopes community members will stay connected to children and families to offer encouragement and support. Helping with practical needs is a good place to start, and, if you suspect abuse or neglect, call 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437).

DHS Caseworker Ashley Lambert

DHS Case Worker Ashley Lambert