Child Welfare Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD)


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The child welfare workforce is responsible for ensuring children’s safety and well-being, delivering treatment, and intervention services to families. Workers must document child and family information, service plans, and visit records in secure data systems, that are often only accessible from an office. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many states had to rapidly pivot to remote technology to conduct mandatory visits of children in foster care and engage in supervised visitation between children and their families. They also had to determine how to provide oversight of treatment and intervention services required through case plans even though many provider services had to suspend or limit services due to stay-at-home orders. Technology (a.k.a. tech) hardware and software were critical tools for child welfare agency leaders to support their workforce during the Coronavirus pandemic. Some jurisdictions were better prepared than others and policy changes were often needed to support the workforce. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) granted flexibility in child welfare funding through Title IV-E, IV-B and SSBG to cover costs associated with obtaining smart phones, tablets, laptops and other technology to facilitate in-person and remote contact and visitation with children and families. In Ohio where the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD) is working with eight counties, a survey of workers conducted between May and July 2020 found that 96% of the workforce pivoted to remote work within three weeks of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic. Only 5% of that workforce had teleworked before the pandemic, but 89% of staff had already received tech devices to conduct work remotely and receipt of software to connect to colleagues, community partners and families increased from 36% to 47%. Most staff reported that logging into the system or entering information and receiving technical support from home was somewhat to extremely easy. Another QIC-WD project site in Milwaukee County also pivoted to remote work immediately in March of 2020. There, over 21% of staff already had a telework agreement in place, and the necessary tech devices, and software before COVID-19 hit. These staff were surveyed in fall 2020 (between November and December) and at that time, 83% were still teleworking. Prior to COVID-19, two other QIC-WD sites implemented technology-focused interventions to strengthen their child welfare workforce. The Washington state Department of Children, Youth & Families QIC-WD site implemented a telework project to strengthen their child welfare workforce. This experience better equipped the agency to support workers to work from home. For example, workers had laptops, an iPhone, and a secure VPN network. The VPN allowed workers to securely access data and other information without physically being in their offices, which made remote work much more seamless and efficient. The Virginia Department of Social Services QIC-WD site, implemented technology solutions to help the workforce better manage their administrative and family engagement tasks while they are in the field. The project consists of a transcription service which allows workers to dictate notes from their case visits via telephone, and a mobile application using an iPad into which workers can enter case notes, access information, upload photos, and conduct virtual meetings with and message families. All workers were equipped with a cell phone and an iPad which, along with the addition of laptop computers, proved to be essential tools during the pandemic. Sarah Wingfield, a Family Service Manager at the Winchester, Virginia Department of Social Services, describes the benefits of using the mobile application during the pandemic. “If you get to a home and then realize that someone is not going to pass the health questions and it might not even be safe to meet with them face-to-face outside, sometimes a worker has gone to their car then and [said], 'I saw you through the door, but I'm going to go ahead and talk with you from my car and use my mobile solution to type while I'm talking' and still at least be able to have a good home visit with the family, even though COVID might have stopped that normal interaction that we were used to.” Some child welfare agencies had to procure and train staff on the appropriate software to support a remote workforce. HHS temporarily allowed videoconferencing for certain child welfare caseworker visits and for approved Title IV-E prevention programs. Several states issued directives either allowing remote visitation or requiring in-person contact. Workers were quickly introduced to new platforms and measures were taken to ensure that remote visits were safe and secure. According to a QIC-WD survey of staff in Ohio e in mid-2020, about one-third of staff in each site reported that they received training focused on the use of virtual technology platforms. Even with the easing of in-person requirements, child welfare jurisdictions faced additional challenges around remote work with families. For example, workers expressed concerns about maintaining confidentiality during videoconferences and ensuring that children and other family members could safely provide information about children’s well-being and safety. Furthermore, not all families had the necessary technology to participate in virtual visits. In one QIC-WD site only 19% of staff reported that there was an effort by their agency to ensure families had access to tech devices after the pandemic began and only 34% reported efforts to ensure families had access to tech software. In another site, 30% received tech software after the pandemic began to facilitate connection with families virtually. However, even fewer staff reported efforts to ensure families had access to tech devices or software (18%). Technology was an important tool for many agencies impacted by the pandemic and the rollout of tech devices and software varied widely by jurisdiction. In some locations, many workers still had to go into the office or into the field which was stressful and required appropriate safety precautions. For more on how child welfare agencies supported the workforce during the pandemic, see Supporting the Child Welfare Workforce During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Provision of Personal Protective Equipment and Addressing Worker Stress and Trauma.