During this national crisis, child welfare agencies are struggling to balance their mission to protect children from abuse and neglect with their duty to protect their workforce. The vast majority of children involved in child welfare cases live at home. Parents are often ordered to participate in certain programs (or requested to do so voluntarily), while caseworkers make regular visits to check on the situation in the home.
Proven, continuous face-to-face contact between clients and practitioners as an established action strategy in child and youth welfare services has been shown to be neither dispensable nor replaceable. However, case workers tell us that COVID-19’s impact on the child welfare system may also be seen as a catalyst for a long overdue development of alternative forms of counseling which they are currently implementing to complement the indispensable, but now interrupted, face-to-face contact.
The Power of Digital Tools
One case worker told us that social services provided for children and adolescents would benefit from the continued and consistent development of digitalizing work processes after the crisis. She was quite candid about learning to use her FAMCare child and family case management software as a more efficient communication, assessment, and response tool.
Child Welfare Case Worker - “When COVID-19 broke out we were all suddenly restricted from client home visitations and mandatory in-person evaluations. I started to contact my clients more frequently with phone calls, email, texting, and even zoom meetings. Although these contacts could never replace face-to-face interviews, I started to get better at picking up clues as to what was going on in the home and decided to trust my instincts more. I’d notate in my case management file my impression of each contact and note how quickly I needed to follow-up. I began to realize that I could go through my entire caseload rather quickly and catch many a crisis before things got out of hand. Utilizing my available digital tools more proactively helped me feel like I was getting on top of my enormous caseload for the first time.”
GVT - “Without as much face-to-face contact, didn’t you feel like something was missing?”
CWCW - “Yes, of course. There is no substitute for in-person visits. But that’s not the point. COVID-19 is real and quarantining to protect everyone’s health is a fact of life. But learning to use the digital platform more effectively enabled me to check in with my clients more frequently and follow up quickly if there was a problem. I’m not saying that digital platforms replace face-to-face experiences but, if I’m not speaking out of turn, case workers are always asked to handle unreasonable caseloads and relying solely on the traditional home visit assessment rotation is not realistic. Learning to utilize these advanced digital software platforms enables more frequent contact, and fewer clients fall through the cracks of an overloaded child welfare system.
GVT - "Is it possible to conduct an accurate assessment remotely?”
CWCW - “No, not completely. But if you have enough experience you learn to rely on your instincts more, and I’m finding that, in my case at least, and I’ve been at this for twenty years, my instincts are pretty reliable. You know, depending on the client, if they don’t respond to my outreach, then I know I have to get over there and take a look. Or, if the child is silent on the call, or is not allowed to speak, or if the parents sound too happy or energetic, I know it’s time for an in-person. Now I’m using this method once a week on my entire caseload. My instincts are pretty alert, I realize, and if I make frequent enough contact, I can usually sniff out what’s going on.”
GVT - “Is contact frequency an important issue?”
CWCW – “You bet. Number one, the child feels more confident if he or she knows someone is always there for them. Number two, the parents often need someone looking over their shoulder to get them through the rough patches. That’s always been one of the problems with child welfare work; caseloads are so big that you don’t get back to your clients frequently enough, and they end up getting scared and going astray. Since I’ve learned to use my FAMCare platform more proactively, my clients hear from me probably more than they want to. It doesn’t replace in-person, but it gives me another tool to handle my caseload more effectively. I recommend to all child welfare workers that during COVID they take a closer look at how they might use digital processes more effectively.”