Child welfare practice as we knew it is gone. COVID-19 forced the system into an almost unrecognizable version of itself, keeping children safe and cases moving with very limited face to face interaction. For more than a year we shifted work to a virtual platform out of necessity, and as we safely return to in-person activities it would be easy to sprint as fast as possible back to “the way we did things before COVID-19”. But, what if instead of sprinting we took the time to pause and reflect? Perhaps some of our new virtual practices make child welfare better. Maybe we can even pause long enough to solidify a new way of doing things by examining what we assumed about child welfare practice pre-COVID and what we know will be true in a post-pandemic world.
#1 – Virtual Meetings
What we assumed: Meetings should always be held face to face.
Before the pandemic, we relied on virtual meetings only in cases of emergency. In person interaction was deemed best practice and we assumed important decisions could only be made in the confines of four walls. We now know our assumptions were wrong because something special happened when we moved meetings online; parent engagement increased. Barriers like a long commute or securing a ride were erased, and when it was just too difficult to face the team in person, parents showed up to virtual meetings because it is a little safer to be vulnerable on the phone with the camera off.
Virtual meetings increased service provider engagement too. With growing caseloads and shrinking capacity, it’s more feasible for a provider to hop on a call from the office than to drive across town to meet in person.
The lesson: While every meeting cannot be held virtually, it is a process we should leverage to keep our families engaged and team members communicating.
#2 Virtual Court Hearings
What we assumed: Court must be in person for EVERY hearing.
I will never forget the wooden bench outside of a small courtroom in North Idaho. Not because it is anything particularly special, but because I spent hours, and I mean hours, on that bench as a case manager waiting for my turn in court. Though the wait was painful, it seemed like the right thing to do. Families needed to see the judge in person to get the most out of each hearing, right? Enter, COVID-19, virtual court, and this lingering thought that maybe we don’t need to be in person like we once believed. Much like virtual meetings, we saw an increase in parent attendance to court because when it is virtual families can attend. It is easier for parents to get 30 minutes off work for a virtual hearing than to miss the whole morning. Virtual hearings also safeguard from last minute emergencies like missing a ride or a flat tire. And, while not all parents encounter barriers to in-person hearings, ensuring each and every parent can attend court is a top priority for child welfare, so if we have the technology to make that happen, we should use it.
Another benefit of virtual hearings? Child welfare staff can log on from anywhere, saving drive and idle wait time. After all, when a virtual hearing runs late staff can complete other case tasks in the field, instead of, for example, sitting on a wooden bench for hours.
The lesson: Not all court hearings can be virtual, but there is certainly a balance, and we should be cautious to eliminate virtual hearings all together.
#3 – Working Remotely
What we assumed: Work must happen in an office
Dear Child Welfare,
Please don’t come to the office anymore.
In March 2020 the entire industry wondered how virtual child welfare work was possible. Today, we know it is. We can log onto a meeting from home (see #1 – virtual meetings for the win), document at a coffee shop between home visits and even join a court hearing from the car after seeing a child at school. And after 18 months of practicing, we know ourselves a little better too. Some of us thrive working remotely because the distractions are limited, while others crave time in the office because at the office the laundry is not begging to be changed. Either way, work is accomplished, and that elusive work/life balance dream moves a little closer to reality.
And that lingering fear that remote work and virtual meetings will rob us of our integrity and community? It’s time to let that go. We assumed the challenges to remote engagement were insurmountable, and yet here we are having clinical staffings via Zoom, family team meetings over TEAMS and even virtual socials over WebEx. The pandemic didn’t hamper child welfare practice, it showed us new and innovative ways to do the right work from virtually anywhere.
The lesson: We all know child welfare is in the midst of a capacity crisis. There is more work than time and resources, and we all struggle to keep up with growing caseloads and relentless demand. COVID-19 forced us to re-evaluate “how we work”, and at the same time reminded us “why we do the work” because we found ourselves spending more meaningful time with families, even if it was on a Zoom meeting.
So, let’s take the pause and really examine these lessons so that we can make changes to increase capacity for our workforce and the families we serve. Moving to virtual hearings so that parents can attend, and child welfare staff can reclaim a few hours will not grab headlines, but it will give staff additional time in front of kids and families, and we can all agree that is the most important work. And, if we make enough changes to grow capacity in our processes, maybe we truly can do more good.