by Jonathan Rockoff •
During the pandemic, child welfare agencies have worked hard to ensure the safety of children and families. To get an inside view of this effort, I spoke with two North Carolina child welfare professionals.
Myca Jeter, Foster Care Director for Access Family Services, says after the pandemic hit her immediate concern was for resource families and children and youth in foster care. She says she asked, “How do we stabilize everyone? What should we be communicating?”
Rhonda Dawson, Permanency Planning Supervisor with Pitt County Department of Social Services, says she had the same reaction. “I thought, ‘How do we keep the kids safe? Are we going to be able to achieve permanence? How will we maintain the mental health of our youth?’”
The pandemic highlighted the fact that everyone needs help sometimes. Access Family Services saw an increase in calls from resource parents that had never previously asked for help. “Everyone was seeing signs of wear and tear,” Jeter says.
In Pitt County, some resource parents were understandably hesitant to leave home and wanted to do everything virtually. Dawson says her agency is as accommodating as possible.
Modifying and increasing communication was a big part of agencies’ response to COVID. “We started by reaching out to everyone individually at all levels, including foster parents,” Jeter says. Her agency also began holding virtual town halls. Pitt County DSS started using Zoom and other virtual platforms.
Physical changes were needed as well. For example, staff had to be supplied with masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Dawson says at her agency, “We try to do visits outside and even bought new furniture that is easily cleaned and sanitized for the visitation rooms.”
Both Jeter and Dawson made it clear adapting to COVID has been a team effort. For instance, Access Family Services reached out to resource parents that had been on hold and asked them, if they were willing, to begin fostering again, even for respite. Jeter says, “We were honest and said ‘this is a crisis where everyone needs to help.’”
Pitt County DSS initially worried COVID would cause staff to take leave. “Instead,” Dawson says, “they’re showing up every day and doing a great job keeping kids safe.”
Jeter echoes this. “Staff really stepped up. They found low cost, fun, safe activities for families. We also started virtual support groups where resource parents from all over North Carolina who would never normally meet can come together and lift one another up.”
When I asked what she’s learned so far from the pandemic, Jeter told me she has been struck by how helpful technology has been. “We are connecting parents from all over the state and they’re enjoying the ability to interact and meet new supports on Zoom,” she says. “Plus, our staff have more work/life balance because they can accomplish more without all the travel.”
For her part, Dawson’s been impressed by her agency’s ability to create permanence for youth in the midst of a pandemic. She reports that in the first three months of lockdown from COVID Pitt County DSS finalized eight adoptions and 16 other youth exited foster care.