Innovation in North Carolina’s Child Welfare System During COVID-19

by Jamie Bazemore •

The pandemic has brought loss and hardship to so many of us. But for me it has also been a reminder of how adaptable and creative humans can be. Even when faced with disruption and challenges, we somehow find a way to innovate and move forward.

I hope when COVID is behind us we will continue to use these practices to make our child welfare system better than ever.

Certainly this is what I’ve learned in talking with people in North Carolina’s child welfare system. In the midst of a crisis, resource parents, social workers, and others across the state have made amazing adaptations. I want to share some of these with you now in the hope that when COVID is behind us we will continue to use these practices to make our child welfare system better than ever.

Telehealth. COVID has taught many of us how useful telehealth can be. For example, prior to the pandemic, Crossnore School and Children’s Home made no use of telehealth. By July, 67% of their outpatient therapy was provided via telehealth or telephone.

“Telehealth is not appropriate for everyone,” says Meredith Martin, Crossnore’s director of program excellence. “But we have seen better results for some. Personally, I have seen increased vulnerability within the therapy space. Some of my adolescent clients appear more comfortable relating to me using telehealth. While we all look forward to life without COVID-19, I believe telehealth will always be a part of our future practice.”

Supporting Parents. More agencies are using virtual trainings and support groups to increase their support for foster, adoptive, and kinship caregivers. Many parents love these platforms because they don’t require travel, childcare, or other barriers associated with in-person events.

“We found zoom to be a blessing,” Rowan County foster parent Denise Russell told me. “We were headed home from our summer vacation and were still able to participate. It has been very helpful for our busy lives.”

Recruiting, Training, and Licensing. Agencies are also using technology creatively so they can continue to recruit, train, and license new foster families. Rowan County DSS, for example, uses Zoom to hold information meetings for prospective resource parents. Social work supervisor Nadean Quarterman says this actually expanded their reach. “We found we could reach more people. One couple actually sat in on a meeting while sitting in the car on their date night!”

Rowan is also approaching foster parent pre-service training differently. “We are now facilitating Deciding Together and TIPS-MAPP trainings twice a day at different times to ensure social distancing,” says Quarterman. “I am hopeful we will continue to use online training post-COVID. We are able to reach more people due to the convenience of not leaving home.”

Chatham County DSS made a similar pivot. When the pandemic hit, they quickly moved from in-person delivery of TIPS-MAPP to online offerings of Deciding Together. They even brought in contract trainers to support the shift. According to Chatham’s Katelynn Cannizarro, this enabled the agency to train over 20 families in 12 weeks—more than usual. In addition, the number of families interested in fostering doubled and more are waiting to be trained. Chatham’s training team believes offering Deciding Together virtually helps them get to know families better, which may make licensing faster. Chatham County DSS is actively tracking that data as a part of their Diligent Recruitment and Retention Plan.

Licensing Kin. Children’s Home Society of NC has discovered that the virtual preservice trainings for kinship families they’ve been holding since the pandemic began are broadening their geographic reach. Jamaica Pfister, their Director of Business Development and Advocacy, says offering a virtual Caring for Our Own training for kinship families allows them to serve kin in counties where they wouldn’t necessarily have the resources to provide an in-person class. “For example,” she says, “two families in Avery County will be attending the upcoming training.”

Family Time/Visitation. For health and safety reasons, Phase 1 of quarantine limited face-to-face visits between children in foster care and their families. Families missed seeing each other in-person, but many agencies found video conferencing actually led to more frequent contact between young people and their families. Once COVID is behind us, agencies may wish to use both video conferencing and in-person visitation. This could lead to stronger connections between children and their families, more shared parenting between birth and resource families, and more visiting time overall.

Engaging Families. Using virtual and telephonic mediums to meet, provide interventions, and engage in discussions regarding permanency may also increase engagement of families involved with child welfare. “As a facilitator of Permanency Planning Review Meetings,” explains Chatham County DSS supervisor Wilder Horner, “I’ve noticed an increase in participation and attendance by parents, their support people, kinship providers, and parent attorneys.”

A number of social workers told me they want to add telephone and video conferencing to their face-to-face contacts with families and children after COVID-19. Why? Because they feel it could increase relationship building, make contact with families more frequent, and improve families’ access to social workers.

Back to Basics. Many resource families and child-placing agencies report that families and their children and youth have “gotten back to basics” during the pandemic. There has been an increase in families spending time together—more family game nights, arts and crafts, daily family bike rides, neighborhood scavenger hunts, and more.

One of the paintings created by youth at Falcon Children’s Home & Family Services.

For youth at Falcon Children’s Home and Family Services, getting back to basics has meant more time for art. After the pandemic set in, one of Falcon’s house parents started a painting project for sibling groups. Many youth had never painted before quarantine. Now their beautiful art is selling in the community and being displayed in a “COVID-19 art gallery” on Falcon’s campus.

Bee, a house parent at Falcon, says “The girls talk about how their anxieties are less when they’re painting and how being creative has helped them venture out of their comfort zones. Seeing them make art they’re proud of has been so rewarding.”

North Carolina’s child welfare system has worked diligently during COVID not only to continue to meet the safety, well-being, and permanency needs of children and families but to be innovative in doing so. As we continue to explore our “new normal,” each one of us—families, social workers, child welfare and behavioral health agencies, the courts, and others—should try to identify instances where these challenging times have led to innovation, efficiency, and opportunity. We can then advocate for the ongoing use of these positive experiences to improve our system and the lives of children and families.

Jamie Bazemore, BSW, MSW is the Adoption Facilitator for Stephenson & Fleming, LLP and a Child Welfare Program Consultant for Cansler Collaborative Resources.