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 fourth of four posts.
Efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 also delayed access to some services parents and families rely on
Some parents experienced delays in accessing various services – including mental health services, substance abuse testing and parenting visitation – while attempting to complete required services.
By Heather Coffman, Client Services Analyst
During the past year, guidance and requirements intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have also slowed the ability of some Coloradans from accessing timely services within the child protection system. The child protection system is charged with providing services to families when there are child safety concerns present. The services provided to families are developed to mitigate child safety concerns which allow for children to remain in their parents’ care or be returned to their parents’ care. A treatment plan is developed for families who will be involved with the child protection system for longer than 60 days. Services such as mental health, substance abuse and parenting time are common services provided to families and children. Sometimes, these services are voluntary. However, they are often requirements for parents to complete prior to their children being returned to their care.
The CPO reviewed cases in which service providers, working to adhere to physical distancing and other public health guidance, were not able to provide timely services to all parents who had been ordered to complete certain treatments and services, including:
- Mental health treatment
- Substance use monitoring
- Parenting time
For many parents, delays in accessing these services created setback to completing treatments required to have their children returned to their care. The impacts of COVID-19 on each of these service areas, and the effects felt by some parents, are detailed below.
Mental Health Services
With the onset of the pandemic came additional difficulties for parents trying to enroll in mental health services and their ability to participate in those services consistently. COVID-19 has magnified the need for community mental health centers, which were already struggling to provide timely services to everyone who requested them. Parents who are ordered by a judge to participate in mental health services have found that community centers are backed up and have strict guidelines for care due to the pandemic. Virtual appointments, a solution that worked for many, offered little relief to parents without a computer or consistent access to the Internet.
Substance Use Monitoring
In many areas, the pandemic resulted in delayed or decreased access to substance abuse support groups and substance use testing – both are often required services for parents working to regain custody of their children. Social distancing requirements and capacity limits forced many group meetings to stop. Such meetings are not only required of some parents, but also serve as an accountability mechanism and a tool to help parents not use. Without consistent access to group sessions or substance abuse testing – such as urinalysis tests – many parents participation in such services were delayed.
A third service provided to families that has been adversely affected by COVID-19 is parenting time. Compliance with public health guidance regarding physical distancing, capacity limits, quarantine and isolation after exposure to the virus created difficulty in scheduling visits between children and their parents at family visitation centers. While virtual visits have been utilized across the state, many parents have expressed frustration with this option, as they are familiar with in-person visits and often find video visits inadequate to connect with their children. Parents have expressed feeling isolated from their children, particularly parents of newborns and toddlers.
The pandemic’s impacts were heightened in coordinating parenting time for parents residing in inpatient facilities, such as substance abuse inpatient programs. Efforts to maintain physical distance and limit exposure to the virus resulted in canceled visitations between children and parents residing in such centers.
The CPO has monitored the effects of the elongated timeframes for accessing these services. The impact to families and children has, in many cases, been prolonged foster care/kinship care, delayed permanency for many children and forced child welfare services to remain involved with a family for longer time periods. In many cases, the CPO has worked with clients to provide additional resources or help communicate clients’ concerns directly with service providers.
Heather Coffman joined the CPO in September 2021. Heather has more than 20 years of experience working with children and youth involved in the child welfare system, including working as a group home manager, a mediator with the juvenile probation department, a truancy interventionist, an adolescent caseworker, family engagement facilitator and a permanency team supervisor in Arapahoe County. During her time working in child welfare, she worked with cross-over youth, children with disabilities and children and youth who had experienced significant trauma. She also worked to develop treatment goals for families and children.