Profiles of Hope and Courage
Children Services in the Era of COVID-19
PCSAO is collecting stories from the front lines of child protection to raise awareness of the challenges our children services professionals, and the families they serve, are facing during this pandemic. Despite all the changes in their daily lives, they remain hopeful and courageous.
New stories will be added periodically.
Marcus: ‘Helping people is my passion’
Marcus is a caseworker with Mahoning County Children Services. While he has only been in his current job for ten months, he is not new to working with youth and families. He has served as a court investigator with Mahoning County and a mental health specialist with Youngstown City Schools. In his free time, he coaches youth track and volleyball.
“I love helping people,” said Marcus. “This is my passion.”
It has been hard for Marcus to adjust to checking in with clients virtually.
“For me, I am a people person, I like to engage face to face. It was hard for me to take a step back,” said Marcus. “I’m definitely going back to home visits as soon as possible so I can give that extra hand if needed.”
Even though he is not seeing many people face-to-face now, Marcus remains dedicated to his clients. He shared the story of one client, “Ms. D” (name changed to protect privacy). Ms. D has been diligently working her case plan since Marcus was assigned to her. She met all her goals for the past year while her son and daughter were in foster care in different homes.
Ms. D. has maintained her sobriety and celebrated an entire year of recovery. At her own initiative, she joined a recovery program and completed a program to improve her financial skills. She had weekly visits with her children at the children services agency. The court recognized Ms. D.’s progress and granted her unsupervised weekend visits.
The weekend visits were going well for several months. However, when the stay-at-home order was issued, the foster caregiver for Ms. D’s daughter was not comfortable with the girl leaving for a visit and returning because of the exposure risk. Many foster caregivers have expressed concerns about this. Ms. D’s son continued his visits because his foster caregiver was willing to do so.
Ms. D. was devastated by not being able to see her daughter in person. She called Marcus in tears. She felt as though all her hard work was for nothing.
“I felt bad that Ms. D.’s daughter couldn’t visit face-to-face with her family. However, I made sure I kept the family’s spirits up,” said Marcus.
Ms. D kept working her case plan, and her hard work paid off. She was recently reunified with both her children. The magistrate in her case applauded her success. Ms. D. could not hold back her tears of happiness and excitement when Marcus arrived with her daughter.
“Ms. D’s story is inspiring and encouraging. She is a shining example of maintaining her faith and working hard to get her life in order and her family back in the face of adversity and uncertain times,” explained Marcus.
Sarah: A Constant Advocate for Recovery
Sarah is a family peer mentor with the Ohio START program. Family peer mentors are individuals with personal experience with substance use disorder, recovery and the children services system. They connect with families, provide accountability and support, and serve as role models.
Ohio START is an intervention model that helps families struggling with both substance abuse and child maltreatment by creating teams of caseworkers, family peer mentors and behavioral health providers to support them.
During the pandemic, some things about Sarah’s job have remained constant; others have not.
“My role hasn’t changed,” she says. “Families can still contact me via messenger. I still have the same boundaries.”
Sarah visits people weekly in the first 60 days of participation in the program and biweekly after that. She works closely with the Ohio START caseworker so that they are checking on families on alternating weeks.
Sarah has a background in early childhood education, and she brings that creativity to her family peer mentor role. She used to do crafts and activities with her families in person. Now she sends crafts in the mail, and she and her children do them with families virtually.
How Sarah conducts home visits is also different. She makes a weekly trip to the office for supplies: masks, gloves and sanitizer. She takes her own stool to clients’ homes for both her safety and theirs. She cleans it before and after her visits, but she isn’t scared of contracting the virus.
“I’ve been through a lot and put myself through a lot. I haven’t allowed it to scare me,” she said. “My biggest fear is spreading it to my parents who watch my kids. I live my life every day the same as before, minus being able to go places.”
Sarah’s days are hectic, especially when she is working from home. In addition to her work, she is tasked with home-schooling her children during the pandemic, and she has her own recovery to maintain. Sarah’s families who were already engaged in a recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Smart Recovery are doing well. Those who are new to the program are experiencing more relapses. Similarly, the families Sarah serves who have custody of their kids are doing well because they can be active parents. Those who do not have custody are struggling. Sarah is still there for them.
“I am constantly an advocate for recovery. Recovery is possible. The importance of our role is that it allows other people to navigate their own recoveries. I wish this program had been around during my addiction, so I had someone to walk along with me.”
Alli: ‘We have a job to do’
Alli has been an intake caseworker at Guernsey County Children Services for two and a half years. Her job has changed less during the pandemic than caseworkers with other responsibilities because she is not able to complete her work virtually.
“We have a job to do,” Alli said. “If we have to go in, we go in.”
Home visits have been challenging at times. Alli uses a screening tool to assess the risk of visiting a home. She asks if anyone has symptoms, has been exposed to COVID-19, or has traveled recently. She had a situation where she visited a home with a probation officer who had met with the family two days earlier using the same screening tool. The family members said they felt fine. When the officer returned with Alli two days later, the parent claimed to have not been feeling well for weeks. Alli had to explain the purpose and importance of the visit and continued with her questions.
In some ways, COVID-19 has helped Alli streamline her visits. She takes only an iPad and leaves her notebook because it is harder to clean. As much as possible, she meets with families outside and goes inside their home at the end of the visit to see their home setting. She completes as much of the paperwork as possible ahead of time so that she only needs to explain it to the client and get signatures.
There is one safety measure that Alli does not enjoy. “Masks are my least favorite. It’s so hot and humid. You can’t see emotions through a mask, “ she explained. “I try to smile with my eyes.”
Alli said that in addition to helping her streamline cases, the cleaning protocols developed to avoid transmission of coronavirus are positive. Families will benefit from the agency’s enhanced cleaning, especially in the playrooms used for family visitation.
Alli goes to the office two days a week, trying to schedule her home visits on those days and to complete the documentation for her cases on the days she is at home. “The craziness and busyness of the agency is distracting,” she said. “It is easier to accomplish paperwork from home.”
This productivity along with a decline in her caseload have allowed Alli to close cases faster. The decline in calls to the agency, however, worries her. “When everything started, there was definitely a decrease. It was very quiet. It was concerning.”
Alli credits children being away from school and other providers such as therapists and counselors as the reason for the decline. At first, she was getting more domestic violence cases. Recently calls have picked back up, coming in more quickly and more frequently, but not as many as before. She now has 10-12 cases compared to 14-15 pre-pandemic. “We are really banking on community members and law enforcement to keep an eye on people.”
Beth: COVID Can’t Stop Adoption!
Beth is an adoption caseworker with Mahoning County Children Services. She has 18 years’ experience in child protection, including her current experience as well as experience with families working toward reunification. One huge change for her in the era of COVID-19 has been the inability to see people face to face.
“Nothing can replace the in-person contact, seeing your coworkers,” she said. “That’s the part that is the most difficult to adjust to, the lack of contact in a people-oriented profession.”
While Beth is doing a lot of virtual meetings, she is still required to complete each family’s final safety audit in person. The safety audit is different now, as she explained.
“You maintain social distance. You stand far apart and you don’t touch anything, don’t sign anything. There is no paper and nothing is exchanged. It’s so unnatural.”
Adoption finalizations are different, too. Ordinarily, adoptions are finalized in Mahoning County Probate Judge Robert N. Rusu’s courtroom. Agency staff attend as well as friends and relatives of the adoptive family. The courtroom is often buzzing with congratulatory words, hugs, laughter, and smiles. Judge Rusu has a tradition he includes in each adoption finalization. He has the adoptee come up to the bench and allows the child to “finalize” the adoption by striking his gavel and exclaiming together, “Adoption granted!”
With Ohio’s stay-at-home order in place, that wasn’t possible. But Beth was determined that the adoption would still be special.
Recently, one family’s adoption finalization hearing was held by video teleconference. The court encouraged the family to invite supporters to watch remotely. It was as festive as it could possibly be with family, friends, the court, and children services staff all watching and sharing congratulations.
Beth wanted to ensure that Judge Rusu’s tradition remained intact. She purchased a wooden mallet and decorated it with a festive purple ribbon. Via video teleconference, just like he has done for every adoption finalization, Judge Rusu had the child bang the gavel and declare together, “Adoption granted!”
The stay-at-home order also did not allow for a special celebration that might ordinarily follow the ceremony. Beth teamed up with colleagues Theresa Pancoe and Jennifer Kollar to hatch a plan to complement the “Hoot & Holler Drive-by Parade” planned by the adoptive family with an oversized balloon-themed sign in the family’s yard. It added to the celebration of their special day.
Anthony: Kids Belong with their Family
Anthony is a 30 Days to Family caseworker with Lucas County Children Services, a job he has had for a year. 30 Days to Family is an intensive, short-term intervention that involves searching for children’s relatives as soon as they enter foster care to identify potential placement options with family.
Anthony has 18 total years of experience including serving as caseworker for both intake and ongoing cases and working with youth as an independent living specialist. Throughout his 18 years in child protection, one thing has motivated Anthony the most: “Kids belong with their family,” Anthony said. “I have always believed that since the day I started as a caseworker. When you can get a child with family, it’s just the most rewarding thing to see.”
Anthony’s mission is to get children placed with a family member or friend within 30 days. He starts with the parents, letting them know that he is there to get their kids out of foster care and then to get supports for them in place. Generally, they are cooperative and share information about their family. Anthony builds a family tree called a genogram of at least 80 people. He has found over 150 family members in some cases. He uses the state’s child welfare information system (SACWIS) along with public sources of information online and checks them against social media. From there, he cold-calls people and explains the situation to them.
“I find everyone who wants to help and what they are willing to do,” said Anthony. “I do a home study for respite care. Sometimes they are willing to help with transportation to school or appointments.”
With 30 Days to Family, Anthony’s job is self-directed. He spends hours searching without a lot of work product to show. He has fewer tools during the pandemic and his searches take longer. He is using a tablet computer right now rather than having three screens up at his office, with multiple tabs open to create a genogram. He likened it to going from WiFi back to dial-up, but the agency is happy with his results.
Once Anthony finds a placement, he focuses on that and starts building out supports for the child. No one has declined to help because of COVID-19. He then checks in with them 30, 60 and 90 days after placement but sometimes misses the more in-depth interaction he had as an ongoing worker. Still, the rewards can be both more immediate and more longlasting. “You can see how happy they are to go with family,” he said.
Ashley: ‘It’s a passion and a lifestyle choice’
Ashley is an Ohio START caseworker in Trumbull County. She has been with Ohio START for a year and has five years of experience in casework. Ohio START is an intervention model that helps families struggling with both substance abuse and child maltreatment by creating teams of caseworkers, family peer mentors and behavioral health providers to support them.
Ashley is working with 11 families right now, two of whom are new. Her established cases are on track, as they were already well into the program. Her newer cases are struggling, with a couple of families missing in action. The biggest difference in her job since the pandemic began is her inability to “just go.” She and her supervisor evaluate each case weekly to determine who needs to be seen in person. “I’ve always done a lot of communication with text and phone calls and seeing them weekly builds relationship and trust,” she says.
Still, it’s tougher right now because in-person meetings have been cut in half. “Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting,” she says. “Half of working with people in addiction is reading behavior. Body language and communication tell more than drug screens.”
The biggest challenge Ashley’s clients are currently facing is the loss of intensive outpatient services. Especially for people coming out of inpatient substance abuse treatment, the shift away from intensive therapy to telehealth meetings is a struggle. Ashley and the Ohio START family peer mentor are doing their best to create a constant presence in their lives.
Lack of face-to-face contact is challenging for family visitation as well. One family she works with has a son with autism in foster care. “Not being able to have visits every week is killing the family,” she says. “He is autistic and nonverbal. Zoom doesn’t work with him. The worry that the family has for him has intensified 1,000 percent, not being able to see him and hold him.”
Ashley has a mask, gloves, and goggles with her whenever she visits clients in person. She tries to do visits outside to limit exposure. She has Lysol wipes in her car for the times she needs to transport someone. Overall, these measures don’t weigh on her heavily. “It’s a tough job anyway. You have no idea what you are getting into when you go into homes. I do my best to take precautions, but I don’t dwell on it, because if I did I’d never leave the house.”
Despite the change in circumstances, Ashley remains dedicated to her job. “Recovery is a team effort. Nobody can do it on their own,” she says. “It’s hard to explain this position unless you do it. It’s a passion and a lifestyle choice. You have to really believe in it because there are a whole lot of negatives.”
Theresa: Working Hard to Provide Her Team with Everything They Need
Theresa is the adoption supervisor for Butler County Children Services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency is still visiting families when necessary. For ongoing cases where children have active safety plans, such as kids in their own home or placed with a relative, caseworkers make sure the family is following the safety plan and these may take place virtually. For new cases, the agency prefers a face-to-face visit to occur.
“If there is concern regarding a child for a new case, we see them in person,” she said.
The adoption team Theresa leads works with children who are in the permanent custody of the agency. These kids may be placed in foster care, group homes or residential treatment centers. Caseworkers contact them at least monthly via teleconference. Placements can be tough because many of the older children have mental health and behavioral health issues. Some go AWOL, leaving placements without permission. If there is a disruption in placement and they need to move to another home or facility, caseworkers pick them up and transport them to their new placement using precautions. This happens about once a week, a rate that has remained constant during the pandemic.
Foster families in Butler County have continued to take in youth despite the risk of exposure. “Our foster families, the ones licensed by the county, are willing and open,” Theresa said. “They have welcomed these kids.”
While most agency staff are currently working remotely, two supervisors, an administrator, a receptionist, and a deputy are on duty at the office. Theresa works hard to provide her team with everything they need. Staff can come to the building to complete court documentation, have a document notarized or retrieve supplies without contact.
While many juvenile court cases are on hold, adoptions have not slowed down during the pandemic. They have continued hearings in-person while meeting social distancing mandates. Family units sit together, away from other families or agency staff. People wear masks. They offer a video teleconference link for friends and family who are not permitted to attend. Between mid-March and June, Butler county will have completed 21 adoptions. Theresa and her team share the credit for keeping adoption cases moving. “I can’t thank our magistrate Heather Cady enough. They make every adoption as special as possible, even during a pandemic,” Theresa concluded.
Matt, Dwayne and Kade: ‘All along, we had a good feeling about it’
Matt always pictured himself as a dad. Driving to work one day, he heard an ad on the radio about adoption and foster care. When he got home, he talked with his husband Dwayne and they decided to look into it. They started foster care classes the following week. For six weeks, they attended class two nights a week for three hours. They had finished classes and were waiting on their final paperwork when a caseworker emailed them about a boy named Kade. She had gotten to know Matt and Dwayne and thought Kade would be a good match for them.
“All along, we had a good feeling about it,” Dwayne said.
They set up a meeting with Kade and his respite worker. Kade was in a church camp that week, and he asked if Dwayne and Matt could come to family night because he didn’t have any family to be there with him. They had a meal, hung out and went to a church service. Matt and Dwayne left that evening feeling excited about how well their meeting went. After a couple more get-togethers, Kade visited for a weekend and they all bonded. Kade was placed with them in August, right after their foster care license went through. “He came into our home, and he’s been here ever since.”
Their caseworker told them if all went well, they should be able to adopt Kade in February. However, Matt and Dwayne wanted to wait until school was out in May. After the pandemic began, they wondered if that plan would change.
It turned out that their adoption hearing was scheduled for May 29 in person. Initially, they were told that they could bring two additional family members and maintain the number allowed in the courtroom. As the date drew closer, and some sectors were beginning to reopen in Ohio, they asked the magistrate if they could bring five additional people. They wanted Matt’s brother, sister-in-law, and their children to come to the adoption. The magistrate agreed, and they were able to have their whole family with them.
Kade is settling in to his new home well. He had a series of placements before coming to live with Matt and Dwayne, and he was unsure it would last. They made it clear that he was a member of their family. He asked them some “what if” questions, testing their commitment to him. Dwayne’s response was “Well, then you’d get in trouble . . . but we are still adopting you.” Before his adoption went through, they found Kade adjusting a fishing pole outside. He loves to fish. On the materials he was using, he had written his name, along with their last name. He was home.
Catie: ‘Were it not for those two I would not be here today’
Catie is a recent graduate of Cornell University with a degree in applied economics and management, but her path to the Ivy League was not a typical one. Catie spent time in treatment foster care when she was 15 and again when she was 17. The staff at Lucas County Children Services (LCCS), who saw Catie’s potential, had a hand in her success.
Catie graduated from high school and emancipated from foster care in 2013. She enrolled at the University of Toledo but dropped out as she still battled old traumas from her time in foster care. No matter where she was, she knew she could call on her former caseworker Deborah and her post-emancipation worker Michael. They believed in her no matter what, and their verbal support was critical to Catie’s reaching her goals. “Were it not for those two I would not be here today. I may not even be alive today,” she said. “Kids who know people believe in them will see themselves in a different light. Hearing that positivity from an adult who oversees your care is so important.”
Eventually, Catie reached a low point and decided she wanted to change her life. She was homeless at the time but was determined to finish college. She started classes again in North Carolina and then returned to Toledo, where she continued her studies at Owens Community College. She graduated with honors in 2018 with an associate’s degree in business. From there, she was offered full scholarships at Wayne State University, The Ohio State University and Cornell University. She chose the Ivy League.
Catie’s coursework at Cornell was tough, but she also had to work to support herself. That was unusual for students at Cornell. At one point, she was working full-time, attending classes and trying to complete her coursework. Exhausted, and fearing she could not continue, she reached out to LCCS. Staff were able to help her financially so that she could reduce her work hours to part-time. Through the Adopt America Network, Catie also received funding that allowed her to participate in a business delegation trip to China with Phi Theta Kappa.
“I was a tough one to work with, but I was determined and motivated,” she said. “They stepped up and supported me, and their financial support gave me room to breathe.”
This past spring, she faced another challenge when she became sick with a COVID-like illness that kept her from working or going to class. LCCS stepped up again. Catie arranged for extensions on her classwork and would have walked across the stage in May, had the graduation ceremony not been canceled.
Catie is back in Toledo now, searching for work and dedicated to helping youth. She is working with LCCS to find the right opportunity to give back to the community. She wants to reach youth and let them know that they do not have to repeat the cycle — that there are other options. “They don’t think their life could get better or be different,” she said. “I’ve been very blessed to receive the opportunities I have because I’ve been in foster care.
“It’s been a long road. I never imagined I’d be at this point: well educated, with a future ahead of me. Now that I have accomplished my goal, I came back to get involved, help the community heal, and help kids that are in the system. This journey was not just for me to get a degree and live a comfortable life. I just really want to make a difference somewhere.”
Elizabeth: ‘Finding that passion is what drives you to continue’
Elizabeth is new to her position as the Foster Care and Community Engagement Coordinator for Marion County Children Services, having started in February, but she is not new to the agency or to the issues about which she engages the public. As an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University and a participant in the University Partnership Program, Elizabeth served as an intern in the area of direct support for foster families, helping to license foster homes. Immediately following graduation, she began her career in the intake unit, and she has also worked as a placement caseworker. She left for a time and returned to the agency, serving in community education most recently.
Not only does Elizabeth have a history with the agency, she and her husband are adoptive parents and former foster parents. This gives her a unique perspective. She and her husband have also been involved with an organization dedicated to interrupting cycles of neglect, abuse, and abandonment of children in the foster care system for 10 years.
In her new role, Elizabeth oversees foster care recruitment and retention as well as community engagement. Rather than just educating community members, the agency is engaging them as partners. It was a bit of a trial by fire, since Elizabeth started her job right before her first Child Abuse Prevention Month in April and Foster Care Month in May. Everything the agency had planned went virtual. “What’s been really cool is to look at how to do things better because we’ve had to change how we do them,” she said. “Some virtual meetings have allowed for more voices at the table. People are better able to participate and there is no travel time. We are continuing to adapt to meet the needs of the community.”
Elizabeth conducts the mandated reporter training for her agency, as she did in her previous position. She has adapted the training to an online format temporarily and provided a few sessions during the stay-at-home order. “I love doing that training. It is a great way to connect with community partners,” she said.
She has seen increased engagement from community partners because they have more free time and are able to become more involved with the agency.
Elizabeth has also provided foster parent information sessions online, something she will continue doing. The sessions went really well and expanded the agency’s reach. People who may not have attended in person have been able to attend virtually and get their questions answered. “It’s given us an amazing opportunity to reach the community,” she said.
Elizabeth has not seen a reluctance by prospective caregivers to foster children during the pandemic. In fact, more people signed up for the pre-service training, and while not as many went on to attend the training, those who did were more likely to apply for their license after completing training.
Elizabeth has also reached out to schools as part of her community engagement to let them know the agency is there for them. “Our biggest concern is how to keep kids safe right now when no one is around them,” she said. “It’s been good, it’s been bad and everything in between.”
Still, Elizabeth loves her new job. “Finding that passion is what drives you to continue.”
Gena: ‘I have an extreme passion for this’
Gena has been working in child protection for over 20 years, all of it in Butler County. She has a variety of experience including working as an intake caseworker, an ongoing caseworker, quality assurance, adoption and training. She currently works as a permanency roundtables coordinator, a job she has held for three years. The Youth-Centered Permanency Roundtables program was developed several years ago because so many older youth were in foster care for long periods of time.
“They were aging out, not having a permanent family,” Gena said. “Some were ending up homeless without an education, and some were having legal problems.”
With permanency roundtables, or PRTs, youth are at the center of the meeting. They bring whatever support people they want with them. The roundtable participants are very deliberate in their approach. As a team, they explore permanency mapping, which leads to things in a youth’s past they can pursue, whether it be a family member, or a group, sport or activity they enjoy. “They are the best resources for permanency. They know who they are drawn to, who they are comfortable with,” Gena explained.
Her experience with all the different parts of a case helps her see the big picture, think outside the box and problem-solve with young people. “I have an extreme passion for this,” she said. “The program is successful and it’s growing.”
Butler County has continued to hold PRTs during the stay-at-home and safe-at-home orders, due in part to Gena’s determination. It has been difficult ensuring that everyone involved has adequate technology, knows how to use it and can access the platform. The roundtables have remained productive. Attendance at the meetings has been good, partly because transportation was not a barrier. Young people have adapted to the meetings more easily, as they are accustomed to communicating with their friends virtually.
During the pandemic, Gena has not found challenges with people being unwilling to take in a child, but youth who were having visits with people to explore connections that could lead to permanency have not had as much contact. There has been a lot of uncertainty around COVID-19 that led to fewer in-person visits. “Nothing can replace being face-to-face, getting to know each other doing fun activities,” Gena said. “I hope we can get back to building relationships in a natural way rather than forcing it through videos soon.”
Ashley: ‘I want to come alongside families and help them through this’
Ashley is an Ohio START caseworker at Hamilton County Job and Family Services. Ohio START is an intervention model that helps families struggling with both substance abuse and child maltreatment by creating teams of caseworkers, family peer mentors and behavioral health providers to support them.
Ashley came to Ohio START with significant experience working with families experiencing poverty and trauma in school settings. Initially, she was not sure the Ohio START job was right for her. She did not want to be in a position that required her to remove children from their homes. After her interview, she felt it was the right fit for her because she wanted to be a voice for children. “I want to come alongside families and help them through this. I want to prove to them that there are people who want to support them,” Ashley explained.
Ashley’s families have more challenges now than they did before the pandemic. They lost access to support group meetings and face-to-face contact with therapists, doctors, and other service providers. Although Ashley has the flexibility to conduct virtual visits, she has chosen in-person meetings when possible. She plans outdoor visits when the weather allows but sometimes has to meet them inside, having everyone wear a mask and stand six feet away from her.
“The pandemic has caused significant disruption to their normalcy, their recovery,” Ashley said. “The feeling of isolation has increased, which can be a trigger for substance use.”
Not having a phone was a difficulty before the pandemic, but phone access is now a lifeline. Before the pandemic, Ashley had strict boundaries about texting, but has reconsidered because she is not seeing families as often. When she started texting them to check in, they began opening up about feeling isolated. They now text her pictures to check in, which brightens her day. “I’m having more communication with my clients now, but in different ways,” Ashley shared.
Ashley struggles with the risk her job creates for her family. She takes all the recommended precautions, but she sometimes feels guilty about the risk to her family. Her son wants to run to her when she comes home, but she cannot let him until she has showered and bagged her clothes to be washed. Ashley talked extensively with her family about this, but ultimately decided to visit clients in person. “This is my passion,” she said, “and worth the risk.”
Stacia: ‘The reason I am in this job is that I get to see the successful ending’
Stacia joined Montgomery County Children Services after graduating from Wright State with a social work degree. She began her career over 25 years ago in the ongoing unit, working on open cases. Since she enjoyed working with teenagers, her supervisor began giving her more of those cases, and it led to a rewarding career for her.
Stacia began volunteering on Saturdays, helping the Independent Living coordinator with the classes that prepare young people for independent life. When the coordinator retired, she applied for and got the job, holding it for several years. During that time, she was involved with with Montgomery County’s Vulnerable Youth Transition Board, which had a vision to create a system of care that addressed gaps and barriers for young people in transition. Through the advocacy of young people, she said, Medicaid was expanded to cover former foster youth until age 26.
“The youth from that first board are doing great things,” Stacia said. “I love when they come back to let you know how they are doing.”
Stacia currently works as the aftercare coordinator, assisting youth ages 17 to 21 who are aging out of the system. She tries to meet with every 17-year-old to develop or solidify a plan, whether that be reunification with a biological parent, college, or being out on their own.
In her role as aftercare coordinator, Stacia ensures that youth have the job training needed to be eligible for the Bridges program. Bridges supports former foster youth with housing, education, employment and self-care needs. As youth prepare for Bridges, she often helps them with furniture and household items, emergency food, gas cards and bus passes. If they are interested in furthering their education, Montgomery County has an educational opportunity center that can facilitate funding for post-secondary education beyond the usual financial aid.
“I love giving them options they didn’t know they had, opening them up to new ideas,” Stacia said. “With casework I could not see a final ending. The reason I am in this job is that I get to see the successful ending . . . seeing them come out on top and trying my best to help them get there.”
Blair: ‘The good moments in this job are so rewarding, when you see children running to their families and hugging them’
Blair is a 30 Days to Family caseworker in Hamilton County. He has a degree in criminal justice and served a year in the AmeriCorps program. He stumbled into children services after that, starting in investigations and spending two years as a traditional caseworker. He transitioned to his 30 Days to Family role a year ago.
“The good moments in this job are so rewarding, when you see children running to their families and hugging them.”
Blair gets involved the day a child enters foster care. A supervisor and a manager look at cases where the agency takes custody of a child and determines whether the child is eligible for 30 Days to Family. Blair then begins making a genogram, a family tree of everyone who could help the child. On days one and two, he reaches out to priority contacts. He works intensely with families and is very engaged with them. Then he moves to other parts of the family tree, to other relatives. Blair likes that he can give each family the time and attention they deserve.
Blair’s biggest struggle during the pandemic is missing the collaboration that takes place in the office. “When we are all in the building, I am a face-to-face guy. I like to build those personal relationships with the caseworker, get more answers concerning cases and family members,” Blair said. “It’s been weird, adapting to the home life. I have always been good at separating work from free time. There are a lot of distractions here.”
One thing coronavirus has not affected is relatives’ willingness to accept children into their home. Everyone has been understanding about the protocols and wearing masks. “If anything, it is elevating relatives’ concern for children,” Blair said.
In addition to finding relatives who agree to take a child, Blair works to connect the family with resources. One of the biggest issues is housing and making sure each child has his or her own space and bedding. He has helped relatives get bigger apartments and the furnishings they need. In one recent case, he placed a child who had been moved around to various respite providers with a second cousin who has her own child. “They seemed to have a troubled history, but things were so much better having another young person, having that connection with a child that already knows the expectations in that household,” Blair said.
One of the biggest challenges in placing a child within 30 days is waiting for background checks to clear, which can take three to four weeks. Waiting for a case to make its way through the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC) is another challenge. As part of ICPC, a child cannot be placed with relatives in another state until that state has completed a home study. Because Hamilton County is so close to Kentucky and Indiana, this can cause a delay in placement if relatives live across the border.
Overall, Blair feels good about his position. “This job is super important,” he said. “It’s family-based thinking and trauma-based thinking. I think it’s a good stepping stone for the future.”
Jordan: ‘The whole reason you get involved is you’ve got a heart to see people improve their situation’
Jordan has been a caseworker with Delaware County Department of Job and Family Services for two and a half years. He began his career as a peer mentor to at-risk youth in Columbus, moved into parent mentoring and has experience in workforce development. Working from home during the pandemic is challenging, but with creativity and scheduling, he maintains his productivity.
“Working from home has been incredibly difficult,” Jordan said. “It may mean I need to work from home while home-schooling and parenting children. It’s stressful and difficult.”
Jordan and his wife have three children ages 7, 5 and 3. His wife is a labor and delivery nurse and does not work a standard Monday-Friday, 9-5 job. While the flexibility of working from home is useful, it also requires him to prioritize his work when his wife is home. That may mean early morning or late-night paperwork. Recently, he spent an entire Sunday doing home visits because that is when their schedule permitted it.
Working as a peer mentor just out of college, Jordan discovered his young age gave him the ability to work with boys in their teens. It was easy to relate to them and it was also rewarding. “We invest in them and get these boys into a position where they no longer have to keep dealing with children services or law enforcement,” he said.
COVID has not slowed down the courts in Jordan’s area. They have kept cases moving forward, hearing case reviews by Zoom or by telephone, with trials still conducted in person. The pandemic has, however, slowed down the emancipation process for three young men he works with. One youth was not able to emancipate until two months after his 18th birthday due to the shutdown, which delayed him from entering the Bridges program. Due to schools and businesses being closed, he was not able to meet the requirement that he be employed or attending school. Thanks to Gov. DeWine’s action, he was able to remain in foster care during that time. Jordan has two other youth currently in the emancipation process. Getting housing is the biggest issue for them currently.
Jordan is aware that he serves as a role model for these boys in a profession where male caseworkers are not as common. “A lot of these boys don’t have a positive male role model in their lives,” Jordan said. “It’s a big motivating factor for me if I can have a role in their lives that leads them to do better. The whole reason you get involved is you’ve got a heart to see people improve their situation. To see these boys go from very compromised situations where they have legal situations and family uninvolved to doing better . . . Every success reconfirms what you set out to do in the first place.”
Katherine: ‘It’s so important to be doing preventive work’
Katherine is a caseworker in the Alternative Response Unit with Athens County Children Services. Prior to starting with the agency, she served a year with AmeriCorps, where she coordinated student programs such as peer mentorship in Athens County schools. Because Athens County has a school outreach unit with a social worker in every district, Katherine interacted with the children services agency during her AmeriCorps service and ended up joining the staff.
In her current role, Katherine completes an assessment when calls are screened as alternative response. Alternative response identifies concerns before they are problems and gives families the support needed to prevent foster care placement. Katherine enjoys working with families through the process and getting to do different things than she would in a traditional response role. “One thing I love about this is that because there is no court involvement, there is a lot more flexibility,” she said. “I can focus on meeting a family’s need. It helps me build rapport with families and change the image of children services as someone who is there to help and not look over your shoulder.”
In March and April when the shutdown began, Athens County had an increased need for food assistance, transportation, housing, and Internet and cell phone access. Community Food Initiatives, a food program in Athens County, has been able to give Katherine groceries she could take with her when visiting families. If lack of access to food comes up during her visit, she can go to her trunk and supply them with the necessities.
Housing is a perpetual struggle in Athens County. Many families have been experiencing homelessness or just recently found housing. At times, Katherine combs Craigslist to find referrals. On occasion, the agency will pay for a couple of nights for a family to stay in a hotel.
One family Katherine worked with in the spring was experiencing homelessness. They had no Internet and no regular access to a phone. The agency bought them a phone and minutes on a phone card so that they could keep in touch with providers. Katherine and the school counselor visited with the family.
Now, whenever she visits, Katherine reads to the kids. No summer school or tutoring were available this year, so she tried to fill the gap herself by spending time on literacy. “It’s so important to be doing preventive work,” she said. “A lot of referrals are prevented because issues are resolved before they get more serious.”
Lori: ‘The biggest thing people forget is we are not just transportation. The kids look at us as friends, confide in us’
Lori is a driver for Lucas County Children Services (LCCS). Before COVID, she would transport children from home to school, to day care or to the agency for appointments one family at a time. “The biggest thing people forget is we are not just transportation,” she said. “The kids look at us as friends, confide in us, even share things with us they may not say to their caseworker.”
When COVID hit, Lori’s job changed. The in-person visits between parents and children that took place at the agency were halted. Schools and day cares closed. Since Lori was transporting kids less often, the agency pivoted and got creative, delivering activities to families to do together during virtual visits. “The idea was that we wanted to give parents and kids the same activity so they could do it together as an interactive way to bond,” said Linda Rosenbloom, who supervisor family services there. “We started with books to hear each other’s voices and moved from there to crafts and activities. We send all supplies, a note explaining what it is, how to use it, and ways to extend the activity.”
During COVID, Lori has also been connecting kids to meals. She has delivered shelf-stable meals to families experiencing food insecurity. During her downtime, she has acted as a backup, helping with any children who need attention.
Now that in-person supervised visits have begun again on a limited basis, things are different. The agency has had to remove toys from the room and provide activities. Staff had to start from scratch in terms of scheduling, adding people and hours of operation to spread families out and sanitize between visits. “Every time we did something, we found a different aspect that needed to be addressed,” said Kelly Dinkens, manager of building and operations. “But people were so excited to see their kids in person.”
One visitation happens at a time, with an hour between visits for sanitation. Prior to COVID, LCCS hosted 500 visits per week. Now, staff supervise about 40 visits in-person and another 40 virtually. When Lori picks up children now, they feel unsettled by masks, especially babies. “Babies cry a lot. They are fearful, they have been quarantined. We are wearing masks,” explained Lori. “It takes more time to earn their trust . . . maybe three visits.”
But Lori is undaunted by that because she knows her work is valuable. “We play a big role in helping kids feel comfortable with the agency,” Lori said. “We act as a bridge between the agency and home.”
Christian: ‘I work hard to make it feel like you are at a home’
Christian is a case aide who oversees family visitation for Warren County Children Services. The agency’s visitation facility is a large Victorian house called The Townhouse, complete with a full kitchen, two bathrooms and a playset outside.
During normal times, visitation is ordered once a week for two hours, and focuses on maintaining the bond between children and their biological family. Christian supervises the visits and, ordinarily, encourages people to use the kitchen and cook together. “It’s a great tool to reinforce the bond,” she said.
Unfortunately, families can only use the kitchen to store food temporarily right now due to safety concerns. Outside The Townhouse, they have tables, a playset, and bikes for families to use.
Since the pandemic began, the agency and Christian have tried to make sure there was no lapse in visitation. At the beginning, they planned virtual visitations. On June 1, they resumed in-person visitation with one family at a time and 30 minutes between visits for cleaning. Families complete a COVID screening sheet as they enter The Townhouse. Family members take their temperature and enter it on the sheet, and masks are available if they did not bring one. “Masks have been the biggest challenge,” Christian said. “People don’t want to wear them. . . . Babies find them scary. They interfere with physical intimacy.”
Now, The Townhouse hosts up to two visits at a time with visitation extending into the evening to accommodate kids’ school schedules. Each room has a cleaning checklist and hand sanitizer on the wall. Although staff had to remove some toys kids usually play with because they could not be sanitized, they are interacting more with blocks, cars, and dinosaurs.
Both before the pandemic and now, Christian strives to make visitation a positive bonding experience for families. She sees it as a motivation to get better and do better. “Speaking with parents is hard when they have the idea of visitation as bleak and sad. They think it will be embarrassing and demeaning,” Christian said. “I work hard to make it feel like you are at a home even if it isn’t your home. I try to make it as normal as possible to maintain that bond with your child.”
Christian has been in child protection for four years, and she is a full-time social work student. Her personal experience with the agency when she was removed from her home and placed with her grandparents, along with four siblings that came after her, had an impact. “My experience led me to this place, and I’ve loved it.”
Michele: ‘It didn’t slow us down; we just had to adapt’
Michele has worked at Wayne County Children Services for nearly 10 years, first as an intake worker completing investigations and now as a foster care caseworker licensing foster homes. Her desire to work more closely with families led to her to her current position.
“I saw caseworkers establishing good relationships with their families,” she said. “I wanted to have those connections, work with people for a long time.”
She begins by conducting a home study. Once families are licensed, they become part of her caseload, and she works with them on their foster care journey. The transition to this role was a good fit because Michele likes working with families over a longer period time. “It makes you feel good to see them overcome things that are hard for them, to put in the work and be there for kids,” she said.
When the pandemic began in the spring, no one was sure what to expect in terms of foster care placements. “Everybody was a little nervous when things started escalating; people had a lot of questions. They had more reservations about bringing kids into the home,” Michele said. “They have rolled with this . . . and they stepped up.”
In the spring, Michele’s agency transitioned to remote work, and home studies were conducted virtually. “They were hard because there are personal questions you have to ask. There is no body language. You have to think a little bit more and ask questions differently to get what you need out of the interview,” she explained. “It didn’t slow us down; we just had to adapt.”
Her foster families cannot stop in to see her like they may have before. One foster mom is single and has had childcare issues during COVID. She is limited in who she can talk to about her foster children. When she feels overwhelmed, she knows she can call Michele and Michele will understand. This is another reason children services remains Michele’s passion.
Michele is back to face-to-face visitations now, using precautions including PPE and meeting outside whenever possible. It has worked out well for Michele to work from home during this time, and she feels supported by her agency. “It’s quiet at home, and I am not feeling everyone else’s stress,” she said. “They are flexible with schedules. It allows me to be a professional in the job I love and still be the mom I want to be.”
Stephanie: ‘I work with a lot of awesome people who do a lot of awesome things’
Stephanie has been in child protection for 14 years, first in Hocking County and now in Athens County. She currently works in family services as an ongoing caseworker because she likes getting to know families and kids on a long-term basis. She is a native of southern Ohio, and that is special to her. “I want to give back to the community that gave back to me,” she said. “People are different here. They are friendly and down-to-earth. That Appalachian culture is there. I can relate to the struggles.”
Some parts of Athens County are so rural that families struggle with online schooling due to lack of Internet access, paired with food insecurity. “It’s hard to have a home visit when basic needs are not being met,” Stephanie said. “We try to make sure those needs are met so you can focus on the problem.”
Stephanie has a mix of voluntary and court-involved cases on her caseload. There are four people on her team, and they all have their own area of expertise. Stephanie’s area is her training with the On My Shoulders fatherhood curriculum. She tries to get fathers more engaged with their children, giving them a voice and coaching them through the children services process.
One family she works is a good example of this. A girl had been removed from her mother’s home. Her father expressed interest, but there were times when it was hard to engage with him. He wanted his daughter, but he did not know how to make that happen. Stephanie worked to get him more engaged with his child and more active in team meetings. She helped him realize his strengths and build on them. The daughter started a trial home visit in July and has been there ever since, and they are very close to permanency now. “She is so happy she is with her family now,” Stephanie said. “That story helps you move forward.”
Stephanie does not believe that the pandemic changed her job — she is working around barriers. At first, people were panicked about the uncertainty. Their grocery stores were empty. Kids were home 24/7, and families did not know what to do about childcare.
In Athens, people rallied around their community. Restaurants offered free meals. Athens County JFS offered food giveaways. Meals were delivered to families by bus. Stephanie talked to one family who waited in line for an hour to get food. Stephanie said that Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Joe Burrow shed a lot of light on the struggles of their area. Their food pantries appreciate that, and so do the caseworkers.
Overall, Stephanie is appreciative of her team and her other coworkers during this time. “Everyone plays their part. It’s all about coordination,” she explained. “We try to be kind and check in with coworkers. We share frustrations, keep each other motivated. I work with a lot of awesome people who do a lot of awesome things.”
The teamwork is key, Stephanie says, because “it takes a team to wrap around a family.”