In Upstate New York, Child Welfare Agencies Chart a Cautious Course Toward In-Person Services

Staff at the House of the Good Shepherd, which serves Utica and Watertown, New York, show off their masks. Photos courtesy of House of the Good Shepherd

After nearly two months of shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, much of New York state began reopening in the last week, with the exception of hard-hit New York City, Long Island and the Lower Hudson counties. This has been a complex task for upstate child welfare agencies working with vulnerable families and children placed in foster care, with new challenges to sort out.

Can kids visit with the parents they’ve been removed from, and if so where and how? What kinds of health checks should be required for clients entering an office to receive services?

With minimal state or federal guidance, social service agencies have had to get creative.

Youth residential facilities have held outdoor movie nights, and spray-painted rows of colored dots across the lawn so that children can play individual games of Twister. Caseworkers have peered through windows and screen doors to check in with foster children without entering their home.

And while a small number of parents have been able to visit their children for the first time in weeks, each has remained confined to separate cars, with no opportunity to get out and share a hug.

To date, the state Office of Children and Family Services hasn’t issued specific guidance on how foster care and family support agencies should provide human services while minimizing human contact. So providers are looking to each county they work in for guidance, which can vary from one locality to the next, and adapting general guidelines developed for other types of workplaces.

Child welfare leaders across the state say they’re taking a “conservative” approach to ramping up services as coronavirus-imposed shutdowns begin to ease.

To win the governor’s approval for reopening, regions had to meet seven key benchmarks, including consistent declines in virus-related hospitalizations and deaths, and an availability of open beds in hospitals and intensive care units. The approved regions, home to just over one-quarter of the Empire State’s population, have been largely spared the worst infection rates, making up just 5% of the 358,154 New Yorkers who have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. But having seen the devastation coronavirus has wrought in New York City, leaders of local child welfare agencies say they’re keenly aware of how quickly infection can spread if given a chance.

“We have to be very careful that our re-entry plan is successful, and that it’s the last re-entry plan that we do, so we don’t have to backpedal again,” said Brian McKee, CEO of The House of the Good Shepherd. With offices in Utica and Watertown, his agency serves up to 300 youth in foster care and another 250 who receive community-based services, plus roughly 50 who live at its residential campus.

Despite its distance from the outbreak’s epicenter, House of the Good Shepherd has had a handful of infections among staff and youth. All the youth at the residential campus were tested for COVID-19 after the first employee tested positive early on in the pandemic. One asymptomatic youth was found to be infected, and was isolated, McKee said. Since then, all youth who have arrived at the campus have initially been kept apart from the others.

Outside of the residential facility, McKee said 90% of his staff has been working from home, and they are now returning “very sparingly.”

Heads of child welfare agencies across the state are quick to point out that, as essential workers, they won’t be re-opening in the same sense as shuttered shops and salons.

“We never really closed,” said Michelle Jackson, acting executive director of the Human Services Council of New York, which includes many agencies providing direct care to children and families. In most cases, counseling and family visitation has continued but moved online, following the lead of schools. Children and youth living in residential facilities have needed in-person care around the clock, and caseworkers have continued making house calls to check on families and deliver meals, phones, tablets and other essentials – typically without setting foot inside.

On a recent weekday afternoon, there were few people in sight at The House of the Good Shepherd’s Utica office for foster care and community services. Photo: Brian McKee

In a world now driven by fear of infection, maintaining access to a constant supply of masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning products has continued to be an ongoing scramble. While agencies say it’s become easier to purchase protective equipment than in the chaotic early weeks of the pandemic, some items, like masks sized for children, can still be hard to find.

McKee said in Utica, anyone who drives on their residential campus has to be masked even before they get out of the car, but he’s worried their current stock of protective equipment isn’t as robust as he’d like it to be.

“We are in compliance with what’s being required, but we do not have enough personal protective equipment for what I’d consider to be best practice, so that you can change your surgical mask every day,” he said.

In a world that hinges on building trust with vulnerable families, some protective measures have not been so clear to sort out. Masks will also be provided to anyone who enters facilities run by Northern Rivers, which serves children in 36 counties stretching from Westchester to the Canada border.

But CEO Bill Gettman said the agency would not require clients arriving for services to do a temperature check unless they reported feeling unwell. He worried that doing so might “cross a boundary” that would deter people from seeking services. He also found that thermometers were hard to come by – they’d put in an order for 100, but it was still backlogged.

One of the most pressing issues for foster care agencies is safely resuming in-person family visits, which in many places haven’t occurred since mid-March. At Northern Rivers, Gettman said some children participated in contact-free visits last week, with their parents staying inside a vehicle. Next week, a handful of more interactive visits will take place at outdoor picnic tables.

Foster children placed by Children’s Home of Jefferson County will be able to see their parents starting in June, primarily through socially-distanced visits at the foster homes where they are living, held outdoors whenever possible. The agency, which has not had any reported cases of COVID-19, according to Executive Director Karen Richmond, plans to hold 75 in-person visits next week, and will offer transportation to parents in need.

House of the Good Shepherd is one of the few child welfare providers that maintained a handful of in-person family visits throughout the pandemic — roughly five per week between the two offices, by McKee’s estimate. The visits that continued were guided by a combination of court orders, county guidance, biological family preferences and staff availability. Staff worked to safeguard everyone’s health by providing masks and sanitizing office spaces, McKee said, and they are now creating an outdoor visiting space.

Another legacy of coronavirus may be wider acceptance that some services can be provided without the face-to-face contact that was once a given.

Virtual mental health services have proven popular with many clients, and have yielded fewer cancellations, said Gettman of Northern Rivers. And now that most of the agency’s employees have had to figure out how to work from home, many would prefer to keep doing so until infections have declined further and office safety procedures are ironed out, a recent staff survey found.

“It continues to be very complicated, and we’re going to be very careful and very slow about it,” Gettman said. “Everyone has an urge to get back to normal, but I don’t think we’re going to return to that normal.”

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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Megan Conn, New York Reporter, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Megan Conn, New York Reporter, The Chronicle of Social Change 21 Articles
Megan Conn is a reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.