“Through virtual platforms youth have been more courageous in expressing and advocating for themselves.”  ~ Candis Jones, from the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services

It is clear that government agencies continue to adapt to new ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This blog spotlights the creative and diligent work that child welfare agencies are doing to support older youth. The HSITAG FFPSA committee interviewed representatives from Georgia, Nebraska, Idaho, Iowa and Minnesota child welfare agencies to find out what they’ve been doing to engage and care for these young people. The enthusiasm and commitment that each interviewee expressed in our discussions was evident. The stories they shared were reflective of urgency, responsiveness and resilience. Each of them left us feeling hopeful and inspired.

The states we spoke with were able to leverage their respective data systems, and in some cases those of their partners, to quickly identify at-risk youth and implement a proactive outreach plan to offer additional supports that could be needed during this challenging time. Some jurisdictions including Rhode Island, California, Illinois, Alaska, Georgia, Michigan, and the District of Columbia, have taken action to extend the age of foster care during this national emergency, so impacted youth do not lose access to housing and vital community supports.

Stephanie Beasley, Director of Nebraska Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS), described the work of finding and connecting with youth as a “yeoman’s job” (meaning, work performed that involves a great deal of effort). Prior to COVID-19, Nebraska DCFS had initiated the Bridge to Independence Program (B2I), which is a community collaborative focused on prevention and is both publicly and privately funded. This all-hands-on-deck approach included reaching out to these older youth individually on a repetitive basis, making sure that they had what they need as the pandemic evolved.  The goal of this outreach also is designed to reassure and nurture them, and to arrive at an understanding of each individual’s circumstances and needs so that different types of supports could be offered.

After locating affected youth, Nebraska DCFS set about identifying specific needs. First and foremost, being safe and having access to basic needs was at the top of the list. Making sure that placements were stable and that the youth had access to food and healthcare was a top priority. Other priorities like access to technology to stay connected with family, peers, and to continue school commitments were important to the emotional needs of older youth.

Utilizing Technology for Youth Engagement

During every conversation, our interviewees talked at length about youth engagement. Communicating with youth throughout the pandemic, as well as during the reopening phases, has been critical to supporting this at-risk population. Initial communications at the onset of the pandemic were rapid and frequent and included collaboration with case workers, independent living coordinators, higher education institutions and community partners to ensure the safety and well-being of these youth. Continuing this level of communication at all levels ensured that these youth had the services and supports needed to continue to thrive.

Technology has always been an important tool for engaging with foster youth and families, but it has been absolutely critical  to drive effective communications and engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the federal level, the Children’s Bureau within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released guidance for caseworkers to utilize technology for video conferencing and for funding flexibility for technology needs to facilitate and maintain communications with youth. In addition, the Children’s Bureau has encouraged the adaptation of technology by the courts to conduct effective remote child welfare hearings.

In Georgia, the agency found that website updates were not as effective for information dissemination due to the rapid pace with which information was accumulating and changing. Instead, the agency used phone calls, email and text as appropriate. Technology was also used in less conventional ways to expedite consistent delivery of information, as well as to encourage collaboration and engagement. For example, states are leveraging technology to host virtual town halls to keep people informed and connected. In Minnesota, foster youth planned and led several town halls, in Idaho they used a virtual platform to host a graduation celebration for foster youth, and Georgia held an end of school year dance with live music.

In most cases, youth engagement during the pandemic has been positive due to the increased frequency of contact via video conferencing, texting, virtual learning platforms, and email. Candis Jones, from the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, shared that “youth want to be proactively engaged. Through virtual platforms they have been more courageous in expressing and advocating for themselves.”

Moving Forward

When we asked about which practices initiated in response to COVID might be candidates for the future, Michelle Weir of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare indicated that the pandemic has created an “openness to consider engagement in different ways.”

Doug Wolfe with the Iowa Department of Human Services shared that “while technology is no replacement for human contact, it can be a valuable supplement.” He sees the use of virtual technology solutions as an effective way to introduce efficiencies, save travel time and ultimately repurpose those funds for other program needs.

As states continue to advance through their phases of re-opening, leaders are considering what has worked well and what has not during the pandemic. There is no doubt that the expanded methods of engagement used to maintain connections with and to support older youth will be solid practices going forward.   To quote Stephanie Beasley of Nebraska, “We’ve pushed ourselves to get comfy with virtual services, be innovative, and do things differently…and we did. We’re not going back.”

The Human Services Information Advisory Technology Group (HSITAG) would like to thank the following agency leaders, and their staff, for their willingness to speak with us and share their experiences:

Tom Rawlings, Director of the Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Family and Children Services

Dave Jeppesen, Director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare

Janee Harvey, Division Administrator of the Iowa Department of Human Services, Division of Children and Family Services

Doug Wolfe, Program Planner, Iowa Department of HumanServices, Division of Children and Family Services

Jamie Sorenson, Director of the Child Safety and Permanency Division for the Minnesota Department of Human Services

Stephanie Beasley, Director of the Division of Children and Family Services, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services