Part Three — 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 third of four posts.

Child Welfare Practice Changes and New Expectations of Child Welfare Workers Due to COVID-19

By Claire Hooker, Client Services Analyst

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly every facet of life. The onset of the pandemic found families scrambling to adapt to this new world. From making sure there was still food on the table and ensuring their children had access to virtual school, to taking new measures to keep everyone healthy, it seemed that no one was spared from some form of change as the “new normal” started to take shape.

Child welfare case practice was no exception. In the wake of COVID-19, county departments had to rapidly adapt their child welfare practice for the health and safety of staff, family and children. How county departments did this varied based on the impact and prevalence of COVID-19 in their community. At the beginning of the pandemic, some rural counties were not as drastically impacted and continued with business as usual. Caseworkers continued to respond to reports of child abuse and neglect, visit children and families in their homes and assessed situations for safety. Other metro-area communities that were harder hit tried to reduce their child welfare workers’ time in the community while also continuing to assess and monitor child safety.

County department staff had to make quick, and often fluid, changes to their practice to ensure their workforce could continue to protect the children and families they serve. This meant that families and service providers, including foster parents, also had to adapt. The CPO heard from multiple citizens who had questions about what to expect from child welfare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. One foster parent was concerned that the caseworker had only seen the infant in her care virtually, yet the worker was having to make impactful decisions about where the child should live permanently – would the child remain in the foster home, or was it in the child’s best interest to move to a relative’s home? The foster parent voiced that such a life-changing decision for the infant needed to include in-person observation and interaction from the caseworker. However, with concerns of COVID-19, the caseworker had to weigh the risks and benefits of interacting with the infant in-person.

One requirement untouched by the pandemic included the mandate that, when a caseworker was initially responding to a report of abuse or neglect, they must meet with the alleged-victim children in-person. This included visiting the family’s home if the report included a concern about whether the home was safe. The CPO received phone calls from parents concerned about allowing caseworkers into their homes to complete home visits. Parents had concerns about being exposed to COVID-19 through the casework’s visit. Did they have the right to refuse the caseworker’s request to enter the home? Would the caseworker wear a mask? These concerns would then compound an already stressful situation for the family.

Even during challenging times, there are silver linings. The CPO heard from families that some practice shifts were beneficial. The ability to attend meetings and court hearings virtually allowed families with limited transportation, or relatives from out of state, to participate in the case. This increased family engagement, which then created an opportunity for more positive outcomes for the safety, permanency and wellbeing of children.

While the pandemic is not over, caseworkers and families have become more accustomed to changes in practice. With optimism that the world will begin to return to some normalcy, child welfare agencies will need to evaluate if some of the practice shifts were for the better, such as virtual meetings, and how those shifts might result in lasting, positive change to child welfare practice.

Claire Hooker joined the CPO in October of 2019. Prior to joining the agency, Claire worked in child welfare for Denver county for more than 10 years. Claire has worked with families struggling with substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence. During her time working in child welfare, Claire served as an ongoing child protection caseworker, a Family Team Meeting facilitator and a program administrator for the Family Team Meeting unit.  Claire is certified as a child welfare supervisor through Colorado’s Child Welfare Training System.