Three Needed Steps In Child Welfare’s Battle Against Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a major threat to children in the child welfare system.  While the disease itself most severely affects older adults, the side effects of the pandemic — shelter-in-place orders, lockdowns, school and court closures and mass unemployment — may be putting children at increased risk for abuse and neglect.

At the same time, the child welfare system and juvenile courts are ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.

The shutdown of the L.A. County Juvenile Courts has placed 33,000 kids in legal limbo – many stranded in temporary foster care because family members willing to care for them or foster parents willing to adopt them permanently are unable to get court approval, which almost always requires an in-person court hearing.

A lack of comprehensive testing and contact tracing and a shortage of personal protective equipment has hampered efforts by children’s social workers to visit at-risk children on the Department of Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) caseload. Concerns about COVID-19 transmission are straining an already overburdened foster care system.

Here are some steps L.A. County —  and other jurisdictions — can take to protect children:

Safely Start the Court Process Back Up

While Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile has announced trial courts will re-open under the Court’s “Here For You/Safe For You” program, we need more far-reaching plan to protect L.A. County’s children. L.A. County is a pandemic hotspot, with 46 percent of California’s COVID-19 cases and 55 percent of deaths.

We must explore greater electronic filing and serving of motions, witness lists, court reports and other filings. We must dramatically increase videoconference meetings to develop consensus stipulated orders for presentation to judges over WebEx.

Juvenile courts are far behind other courts in their adoption of technology measures, because they’ve never been a political priority and have been short-funded for decades.  But there are many low- and no-cost ways we can break the logjam and help children get to safe, supportive homes.

L.A. County also should explore temporarily opening courts on Saturdays for “Adoption Days” to clear the massive backlog of cases. Spacing out hearings and moving adoptions to a separate day would greatly reduce the number of people in the courthouse at one time.

Protect Social Workers

Social workers have struggled to obtain the protective equipment they need to ensure they don’t spread the virus conducting home visits. Around the country, early failures to classify them as first responders and provide necessary PPE is hitting child welfare agencies hard. A few examples:

  • In March, one asymptomatic children’s social worker at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families tested positive for COVID-19 and two others became severely ill.  All had been conducting home visits, triggering a need to contact trace and quarantine hundreds of individuals and families.
  • In April, nine workers with the Florida Department of Children and Families tested positive for COVID-19, including one at a state psychiatric facility for youth.
  • In April, a worker at the Oregon Department of Human Services contracted COVID-19, potentially exposing the entire Roseburg child welfare office.
  • Also in April, 12 employees at the Texas Department of Family Protective Services tested positive for COVID-19. Nearly all were conducting home visits and investigations.

Given L.A. County children’s social workers’s large caseloads, even one infected worker could pass the virus to dozens of households.

In response, some law enforcement agencies have announced they want to knock on doors of children they deem to be most at-risk of abuse. It almost goes without saying but, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and nationwide social unrest, using law enforcement to perform children’s social work is not the answer.

Instead, L.A. County must equip special teams of children’s social workers with high-quality protective gear to visit the children most at risk of abuse. It should also coach teachers and doctors to look for signs of abuse over tele-school and tele-medicine video feeds, and educate members of the public about the potential for abuse during the lockdown and encourage to report suspected cases.

Focus on Foster Care Capacity

Across the country, child welfare experts are warning of a looming shortage of quality foster care placement opportunities. Some foster parents are wary of accepting new foster children because it’s often unclear where youth have been living or with whom they have been in contact as they are shuffled around in crisis situations. Some group homes are understaffed as caregivers stay home. Older foster parents who feel particularly vulnerable to the virus are opting out. The risk is that more children will be temporarily placed in shelters, hotels and even DCFS offices.

The pressure on the foster care system underscores the need to clear the backlog of cases in Juvenile Dependency Court so that children who can be returned safely to their parents or placed with other relatives don’t languish in an already overburdened foster care system.
We need greater access to testing and contact tracing for foster care providers to keep foster parents, care workers and the children they serve safe during the pandemic.

Keeping children safe means planning for the worst-case scenario. Until there is a COVID-19 vaccine or much more effective treatment options, we may be living in the new normal. That means rethinking how we manage the child welfare system. Our children deserve it.

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 David Green is a 20-year employee of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and the treasurer for SEIU Local 721, which represents 96,000 public sector workers in Southern California.

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