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COVID-19 is Stressing Colorado’s Child Welfare System

Caring for the Centennial State’s most vulnerable youth is more challenging than ever before. Here’s why—and a few ways you can help.

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In May, we reported that calls to the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline have dropped by half due to COVID-19, which has separated kids from teachers, coaches, and other mandatory reporters of suspected abuse and neglect. Fewer calls don’t mean fewer children are in danger; in fact, experts say unstable homes are likely under greater stress during the pandemic. That’s forcing the Centennial State’s child welfare system to find new ways to help families while also keeping its employees and advocates safe from the novel coronavirus.

For some of those employees, safety is a do-your-best proposition. County caseworkers, who conduct safety assessments when a hotline report is screened into their local office, still do evaluations in person. “Our caseworkers across all 64 counties are first responders, really,” says Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the Office of Children, Youth, and Families, a division within the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS). “They ensure we can put eyes on kids when there are concerns about a child’s safety.”

A manager in Larimer County’s Child, Youth & Family Services department, Katie Heckman oversees six caseworkers and one coach. She says her team is working from home to avoid spreading coronavirus at the office, and some family check-ins are being done virtually. Caseworkers still visit newly referred families, however, along with those already in the system where a safety concern has been raised (if, for example, a parent who’s been sober relapses). Caseworkers conduct as much of the meeting as possible outdoors, but an in-house inspection—performed wearing gloves and either cloth or surgical masks provided by Larimer County—is required. Family members are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks of their own.

Nevertheless, Heckman says some caseworkers are still worried about exposing themselves and their families to the virus. Even worse is the guilt they feel. “I think it’s been stressful for caseworkers to not be able to do as much face-to-face contact with their families,” she says. “They want to be out in the field and doing more.”

Read more: Our Children, Ourselves

The situation becomes even more complicated should caseworkers decide it’s unsafe for a child to remain in their home. Though caseworkers do their best to place kids with a family member or family friend, that’s not always possible—11 children or teens enter the foster care system each day in Colorado. Simply finding a home in the same county (relocating a kid to another county can cause stressful upheaval, such as having to switch schools) is tough enough in normal times: In October 2017, CDHS put out a call for 1,000 new foster families by 2019. The Colorado Sun reported that, as of July 2019, the state was 900 families short of that goal.

Anxiety about bringing a child carrying coronavirus into a home isn’t likely to help fill that gap, says Ned Breslin, CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children, a Denver nonprofit offering in-home care and an on-site residential facility for youth who have nowhere else to go. “One of the biggest worries right now is that there are children who are either in residential or foster care who could have been exposed to coronavirus,” he says.

To try to ease those fears, the Tennyson Center, along with county partners and other service providers, set up the state’s first quarantine system for kids who may have come in contact with COVID-19 while experiencing homelessness, in the hospital, or during an interaction with the police. The child in question is quarantined at the Tennyson Center for five days, then tested at Children’s Hospital on the sixth. If the results are negative, they can return to their foster home or residential facility, like the one at Tennyson, which currently houses 32 kids and has a 20-deep waiting list.

Tennyson’s waiting list is yet another symptom of COVID-19’s impact on the child welfare system. Many of the kids staying there are waiting to be placed with a foster family. That transition, Breslin says, is typically a slow one: A child may go to lunch with their prospective foster parents or try an overnight visit to make sure the home is a good fit. But all in-person introductions were halted in March to ensure coronavirus didn’t reach and spread throughout the Tennyson campus. Now, one foster family at a time may visit the child at the facility and only for an hour. “The system is gummed up,” Breslin says. “The tools that we could use in a pre-coronavirus world have been restricted—for legitimate reasons. But it means the ability of kids to get to places where their healing journeys can continue has been undermined.”

Even if a foster placement is made, there’s no guaranteeing that healing journey will go smoothly, even pre-pandemic. Children who have been removed from an abusive or neglectful home are often dealing with trauma, and COVID-19 has suspended many of their support systems. Therapy and caseworker check-ins can still happen via video calls, though Christina Sims, a Fort Collins foster parent of five, says keeping her younger children engaged with a video call is nearly impossible. She’s also concerned that her kids have been removed from their routines; Chelsea Kline—a clinician at Colorado State University’s Child Trauma and Resilience Assessment Center, which contracts to assess kids for CDHS—says routines and rituals are an important part of a traumatized youth’s healing process.

Court-appointed special advocates (CASAs), volunteers who mentor and support children with open abuse and neglect cases, represent another altered pillar of the child welfare system: They can no longer do in-person visits. Chelsea Platz, a Boulder-based CASA, says her ward was crushed when she learned Platz could not see her face-to-face. “She asked me if I was leaving her forever,” Platz says. Her CASA kid, who Platz says struggles with abandonment issues, refused to speak with her for two weeks. Things have since thawed a bit—the two have been Snapchatting, and Platz was hopeful they’d be able to do a video call soon. “I told her I’d be in her life until she doesn’t want me there anymore,” Platz says. “This has been difficult for us both.”

Read more: Colorado’s Desperate Need for Court-Appointed Special Advocates

But CASAs are still finding ways to be involved in the lives of the children they mentor. Sims says her foster kids’ CASAs have dropped off supplies, such as groceries and toilet paper, at the house, which has been an enormous help. Now that she can’t send her kids to daycare and school, or even on a playdate, she’s struggled to find time to go shopping herself. (Sims’ husband works during the day, and she works in the evenings.) But juggling keeping her school-aged foster children engaged with virtual learning—and the younger ones out of trouble—not to mention monitoring their various virtual appointments and extra needs, has left her feeling burnt out. “I’ve had several times where I’ve just gone to my closet to cry,” Sims says. “I feel like I may never learn enough or have enough training or be wise enough to help my children have peace during this time.”

Even if you’re not ready to become a foster parent yourself, there are still ways to help displaced children during the pandemic: Foster Together, a Colorado nonprofit, connects volunteers with foster families in need of extra support. Volunteer “Neighbors,” who are trained online, send meals and groceries to families and also provide a sympathetic ear to foster parents. (You can sign up here.) The CASA program is always looking for volunteers as well.

If you don’t feel safe volunteering, you can donate to groups helping children, such as Tennyson Center and Shiloh House, a Colorado nonprofit with residential facilities, day treatment, and outpatient therapy. Children’s Hospital, which has been providing free testing for all kids and workers in the child welfare system since April, could also use additional support.

Protecting kids during COVID-19, says Breslin, has not been easy. But collaborations like the one with Children’s Hospital has given him reason to hope: “The sector is coming together in really unique and magical ways,” Breslin says. “That’s one thing I hope remains when this is over.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of counties in Colorado and the number of children and teens who enter the foster care system in Colorado each day. 

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