Building Capacity to Keep Up and Keep Kids Safe

If you have questions or would like to know more about any of the following strategies, feel free to contact Sean Toole or Bill Bott in our Child Welfare Practice.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has become every state’s number one child welfare issue.

As you work diligently to redesign policies and practices to keep kids and our workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to share some strategies from our clients and friends from across the country that will help you 1) look at this problem through a capacity lens, and 2) better prepare today for the very real possibility that very soon your department could be drastically short-staffed due to illness and quarantines.

Building capacity in human services agencies is Change & Innovation Agency’s (C!A) passion – and specialty – and we want to do anything we can to help you keep kids safe during these uncertain times.

Strategies to keep kids safe:


STRATEGY 1:  Have your assessment teams work diligently at getting caught up. Almost every assessment office we have worked with is behind on documentation and supervisor staffings. It is essential that workers try to get caught up so that when either call volume increases, or number of available workers decreases, we do not have open assessments sitting.

STRATEGY 2:  Monitor removals and unsafe decisions to identify if there is an increase in children that will be entering care.

STRATEGY 3:  If your workers are able to access your IT system from home, consider keeping workers out of the office by:

  • Getting assignments by phone or email
  • Staffing safe cases by phone with their supervisor
  • Documenting at home

STRATEGY 4:  If workers cannot access remotely, consider working in shifts. Two-thirds of available assessment workers could be in the field assessing new cases. This leaves 1/3 in the office to document their reports. Rotating staff daily, with a thorough cleaning at night, limits exposure.

STRATEGY 5:  Limit time with families and children by:

  • Suspending the need to see families with an open assessment more than once, if the initial safety determination is safe
  • Reducing the collateral requirements on safe children

In an effort to prepare for COVID-19, many agencies have been working to define strategies for limiting exposure by allowing video visits and telephone check-ins with foster families and judges. While all of these innovative approaches help us keep eyes on children and maintain the integrity of our practices, they will not likely lead to timely permanency decisions and, in many cases, are being designed to be a “stop gap” until we can resume normal operations. While necessary, you must also consider the impact these actions will ultimately have on capacity.

We know that during normal operations, a case manager requires 12-15 hours per month for each child in their caseload. With approximately 175 working hours per month, each case manager has the time for about 14 children. Unfortunately, most caseloads are already exceeding 14 children; to keep up, workers are forced to prioritize their time. Typically, the order of prioritization looks like this:

  • Kids coming into care with tight court deadlines and emergency needs;
  • Kids with close court dates as case managers need time to document progress;
  • Upcoming TPR cases;
  • Kids in care who are safe and have no pressing needs.

When you add in placement disruptions that automatically jump to the front of the pile, and meeting the daily needs of foster families, we know that today this self-prioritization leads to safe kids having to wait in order to get priority.

To build capacity during this time, we need to shift priorities to assure the safest kids are actively moving toward their permanency goals, and that their cases will not sit idle for these next few months. While we must anticipate many families will lose progress as visitations become more difficult to conduct and monitor, court dates are pushed, and service providers cut back, if safe kids are not moving there is a high likelihood of a capacity crisis that will start in the upcoming weeks and continue for months.

Are you confident you have foster or residential beds for 3 months worth of incoming children?

If the same case manager priorities remain in place, most likely the majority of children will remain in care throughout our efforts to keep a social distance and until things return closer to normal. Even if removals are cut in half to match new call volumes, if no one exits care there will be a massive shortage of available placement options. Compounding this issue is that we must prepare for an inevitable increase in removals as stress, illness, and social factors begin to weigh on high-risk families and calls begin to return to normal summer levels.

While COVID-19 amplifies the issue, we have been helping departments manage this flow of work in these units and under normal conditions with the goals of timely and quality case setup that includes a clear path to the permanency goal, processes that move at the pace of the family and eliminate time where the family waits for us, making the work visible through data and driven by supervisor staffings, and strengthening the relationship with our judicial partners. While those efforts take time and are uniquely built to each client, there are some strategies that can help today:

STRATEGY 1:  Start measuring in/out data in your children in care.  By counting the number of children who entered care in a week versus the number who exited care, supervisors can form a picture of when available beds could potentially run out. Most areas already struggle with placements and disruptions, but with the potential of children staying in care longer, and an influx in children coming into care (either now, or as volume returns closer to normal summer levels) you have to begin looking at more than just available beds, and begin actively looking at strategy 7 to free up space.

STRATEGY 2:  Begin to identify which children are ready to reunify, or close to ready to reunify.   Within your caseloads, as many as 30% are on a clear path to reunification and simply awaiting on a staffing and/or a court hearing. These are families that have been compliant and shown progress, and where the biggest factor holding up reunification is us. Under normal operations, these cases often sit for weeks or months until the case manager has time to fully document and meet with his/her supervisor and then a judge. If we expedite the reunifications and work with judges to push these to the front of their docket, we can immediately begin to build capacity both in available beds and in caseloads for workers.

STRATEGY 3:  Make the work visible.  Anyone who has ever been handed a case file from an exiting social worker knows the pain of trying to figure out what exactly was the path to permanency decision and what is the next step needed. There is a very real possibility that units will have to pick up one another’s caseloads throughout this pandemic, and the more the work is visible, the less family progress will be lost. Consider a simple cover sheet on every case file that includes demographic information as well as Clear Conditions to Return, Current Visitation Plan (considering social distancing restrictions), Next Steps Needed, and Supervisor’s Last Staffing. Supervisors should structure their staffings to review/document this information, see if they are a right fit to be expedited (strategy 7) or concur with next steps.

STRATEGY 4:  Expedite foster license applications with a completed home study. If a home study has already been conducted, likely there has been more scrutiny and vetting done than most kinship and ICPC placements. Having the final approvals expedited and then notifying families that they may be called upon in these difficult circumstances will provide a number of new beds.

In Intake and Assessment, workers are reporting record-low work volume. Less calls are coming in and this means more and more workers are finally getting caught up with older assessments that needed to be documented and closed. On the other side of the spectrum, however, case managers are scrambling to help foster parents as their responsibilities and overall stress have increased tremendously. Foster parents have all the work and social stresses of every family now, plus the increased demand on their time for kids in care.

So what can we do to provide foster families with support during this challenging time?

For workers who have capacity during this time, here are some strategies that you may want to consider implementing:

STRATEGY 1: Identify day care facilities in high-demand areas. Ask Intake to begin looking for day cares that are open in areas where you have large numbers of foster placements. Many day cares are still open since they were considered to be essential businesses in many states, but their numbers have dramatically dropped during this time leaving a number of temporary openings. A list of available centers could help case managers give foster families some new options for much needed respite. While there are risks every time we leave the home, it is worth considering this option to avoid a placement disruption.

STRATEGY 2: Shift assessment workers to assist with licensing. Assessment workers can be used to help complete home studies. If you have a number of open foster family applications, you may want to continue certifying during this time. We can assume less children will be exiting care in the next few months, and foster beds will be at a premium. Until call volume begins to increase, moving workers to assist licensing may be a great way to keep new families coming in to the system.

STRATEGY 3: Take time to say thank you. Finally, anyone can call and say thank you. We’ve talked to a lot of foster families over the years, and we’ve never heard, “I’ve gotten too many thank you’s from the department.” Just a quick call and word of encouragement – and listening to the needs of our foster families – might do more to limit disruptions than anything else. You may want to provide the caller with the ability to offer a gift card or quick voucher if needed to help the foster family get through the next month. It may seem “too simple” to work, but we all have stories of foster families who were ready to disconnect and all we needed to do was pay a little more attention and be there. Now we have staff with some time to check in…and that could be just what some families need right now.

C!A Home
Child Welfare