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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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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’

Kade

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

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.

Catie

“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.”