Part Two — One Year of COVID: CPO analysts describe the impacts of the pandemic on the child protection system.

One year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic settled into Colorado, the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman (CPO) staff sat together around a conference table to discuss what the next few weeks would entail. Like many agencies, we anticipated staff would work remotely for 2 to 3 weeks. Maybe a month.

This year marks the one-year anniversary of the CPO completely shifting its operations out of its downtown office. During this time, the demand for our services has increased by 40 percent. Citizens involved with the child protection system are calling the CPO more than ever before. The child protection system is a broad and diverse collection of services and agencies intended to ensure the safety, well-being and permanency of children in Colorado. This includes child welfare services, which respond to reports of abuse or neglect of children. Child welfare departments may provide services to families, safety plans and in some instances remove children from their homes to ensure their safety. It also includes the Division of Youth Services (DYS), which oversee the care of youth residing in youth centers across Colorado. These agencies – and the CPO – saw an increase in family stress, spurred for many by isolation, unemployment, health concerns, food insecurity and other impacts of the pandemic.

The CPO and other agencies across Colorado were shifting their practice – sometimes daily – to ensure the safety and well-being of their staff, while also ensuring the safety and well-being of the children and families they serve. During the onset of the pandemic, and throughout the year that followed, the CPO took calls from citizens who were confused, frustrated and scared. We spent hours in statewide stakeholder calls, listening and learning about how agencies were adapting. We took that knowledge and used it to help guide and assist our clients with their immediate needs. But we also monitored the broad impacts of COVID-19 on the child protection system. These issues will continue to impact the child protection system for months or years.

Beginning today, and during the three weeks to follow, the CPO will share how COVID-19 impacted various facets of the child protection system. These impacts include:

  • Delays in court proceedings which are designed to address the permanency of children in the child welfare system and resolve cases in which children have been removed from their homes.
  • Changes in how child protection workers responded to reports of child abuse and neglect and how those changes impacted families receiving services.
  • Impacts on required visitations between children who were removed from their homes and their parents who were working to have them returned.
  • How the DYS worked to monitor, prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 inside youth centers across Colorado.

Below is the second of four posts.

COVID-19 testing and monitoring in Division of Youth Services youth centers work to curb outbreaks

During the past year, the CPO has closely monitored conditions inside youth centers as DYS leadership works to ensure the safety and well-being of youth in its care. 

By CPO Staff

During the past year, the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman (CPO) has maintained close contact with Division of Youth Services (DYS) leadership and participated in routine stakeholder calls to learn about efforts to prevent and monitor COVID-19 infections inside DYS youth centers. Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of COVID-19 cases in DYS youth centers – for both youth and staff – have fluctuated. To date, no youth have been critically ill or hospitalized and few DYS staff have been hospitalized. 

The DYS utilized COVID-19 testing at all its youth centers. During November 2020, the DYS rolled out a rapid test for both staff and youth. All youth are being tested upon admission and are placed in general population while test results are pending unless they are symptomatic or test positive with the recently employed rapid test. Youth coming in from a county jail are automatically placed on medical isolation for 14 days.

When a youth tests positive for COVID-19 they are placed in medical quarantine or medical isolation, which means they are in their room, alone, with the door shut but not latched. Youth are required to wear masks but are not currently wearing protective eyewear and the DYS has reported struggles to get youth to wear their masks consistently. Staff are being rapid tested daily. Staff are sent home to await the results of a more robust test if the rapid test is positive.  All staff have their temperature taken daily, wear protective gear and must complete a screen-in and sign off before and after work. 

Like all agencies, the DYS had to work to establish procedures and practices to monitor for COVID-19. As those practices have evolved and become more established, the CPO has received fewer calls from citizens concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on DYS youth centers.

During March 2020, as the pandemic first spread into Colorado, the DYS had to adjust its visitation practices. While in-person visits were not available, families were able to arrange virtual video visits with youth by contacting the individual youth center’s staff. Youth were able to call their families from the youth center telephones and professional visits were held virtually but remained unrestricted. During the past 12 months, the CPO received several questions and concerns about visitation. Some clients felt the virtual visits were insufficient. Others were confused about how to arrange a virtual visit. In handling such cases, the CPO has worked with clients to ensure their concerns were shared with DYS leadership and youth center staff. During recent months, the CPO has heard from youth residing in youth centers that more virtual visits are being scheduled, compared to the onset of the pandemic.

The DYS is in the process of ramping up efforts to resume in-person visitation. Plans include renovating indoor space as well as maximizing outdoor space for visitation. The CPO will work with DYS to stay informed about how such visits will be administered to ensure it is able to share information with clients.

In addition to work to reduce the overall population of youth residing in youth centers, the DYS also created and continues to frequently update the DYS COVID-19 Dashboard and Stakeholder Guide. These offer relevant information to stakeholders in an interactive setting.