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We must keep our children and families strong during this pandemic

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All Americans want the same things — we want our children to be safe and healthy, our neighborhoods to be secure, our economy to be strong, and our friends and families to unite and lift each other in this time of crisis. 

Congress and the White House are moving quickly to provide economic relief for families as well as for essential industries as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads. This must also include support for community-based human services organizations that are typically hit hardest by economic downturns, particularly when their services are needed more than ever. 

One area that deserves our attention is our nation’s child welfare system, which has the critical responsibility of keeping our families strong and intact so that parents can care for their children safely at home. On an average day, child welfare caseworkers interact with thousands of families across the country that are experiencing stressors, adversity, and other issues that put their children at risk for maltreatment. Research shows that increased financial and emotional stress during a crisis, such as a natural disaster or today’s pandemic, increases the likelihood that children will experience physical abuse or neglect. 

Our systems must be nimble, flexible, and innovative. Caseworker visits, essential to the safety of children known to the child welfare system, need to continue despite facing a virus that is spread by people-to-people contact. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently issued guidance allowing for caseworker visits via videoconference.

Many of the families involved in the child welfare system are dealing with complex issues, such as substance use disorders, mental health issues, and domestic violence. As the number of coronavirus infections rises, reduced access to medical care will also be a significant concern for children and families who have come to rely upon the much-needed treatment and services they were receiving. We must ensure through telehealth and videoconferencing that families can continue to access mental health counseling and substance use disorder treatment.

We currently face a shortage of foster homes in this country.  A large number of children in foster care are placed with relatives, typically with grandparents, who are at increased risk for the virus. We must identify back-up homes for these kinship caregivers, put more resources into our foster parent recruitment and retention efforts, encourage virtual foster parent training, and do everything we can do to ensure we have enough safe and qualified homes should we witness a spike in need. 

As a former child welfare director and current head of a national strategic network of community-based human services organizations, I think it is crucial that state and county child welfare agencies work alongside and in partnership with our community-based organizations. Because community-based organizations are closely connected to the communities we serve, we are indeed essential to emergency responses in a crisis like what we are experiencing today.

We applaud New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio for his executive order naming all 40,000 community-based human services employees as essential city personnel. All governors, mayors, and county executives should follow suit quickly or they will find that the organizations they are dependent upon will face disastrous financial challenges they are not equipped to meet alone.  

We are working in partnership with child welfare advocacy leaders calling on Congress to provide new funds to state and local communities, programs, and services that support vulnerable children and families through prevention and intervention of child abuse and neglect during this public health emergency. The requests include more support for kinship care providers, domestic violence programs, and critical supports for older foster youth, especially those who have to leave college with nowhere to go.

This should be a loud wake-up call for all of us who work in or support our nation’s child welfare system. As we all scramble to ensure we are meeting our obligations and responsibilities to our families, communities, and staff, we should take a moment to take note of all that we are learning here. All that we should put in place before the next crisis comes our way. We should also find opportunities to identify ways that the child welfare system can be more flexible, more efficient, and with fewer regulations that do not make sense in this day and time. 

We can rise to this challenge. We have done hard things before. We need to remain united as a field and across sectors in ensuring every child, every family, and every community remains strong and healthy. It can come through this pandemic able to move forward in their lives. 

Susan N. Dreyfus is president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.

Tags Bill de Blasio Child Protective Services Child welfare Family Foster care Humans Social programs

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