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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6The Lessons of COVID-19 in Practice Improvement and Innovation in Child Welfare

Written by Ronald E. Richter, chief executive officer and executive director, Jewish Child Care Association, New York

Like all crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has created widespread opportunities for change. The Jewish Child Care Association's (JCCA's) experience during the crisis highlights several ways our profession can—and should—interrupt the cycle of injustice to which families of color are subjected even as we have long sought to "help" them.

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) offers many reasons for optimism—it advances values that we embrace (i.e., keeping families together and reducing out-of-home care). Critically, the act also encourages the use of approved, evidence-based models to provide innovative prevention practices that can transform both outcomes and equity for families. However, getting models cleared for FFPSA dollars presents a conflict, especially given the financial constraints imposed by the economic contraction of the pandemic.

Using title IV-E funds to develop and research programs for FFPSA approval necessarily takes funds away from high-quality child protection and foster care services, a Solomonic choice for states. JCCA is currently engaged in a promising, multiagency project to track a cohort of youth (and former youth) who entered care between the ages of 0 and 5 and ended up in residential care in their late teens. Mining this data will help us discover what would have worked better for these young people and their families before they entered care, costing them years of separation. This will improve permanency, equity, and quality, especially if the most intensive resources are targeted at the subset of children at highest risk for reentry.

Ensuring that we have the flexibility to push forward with research and model development should be a high priority during and after the pandemic—flexibility that is important at every level of our work. The grueling appointment schedule of housing, public assistance, Medicaid, and more is burdensome for families, replicating aspects of the carceral state and perpetuating distrust and resentments that derail our efforts to support stability and well-being for children. While there is no replacement for in-person family visits and assessments, virtual services have indeed been effective. The human service system's status during the COVID-19 pandemic implores us to transition to a hybrid model to eliminate the indignities that our current model creates. 

Antipoverty efforts must also be dramatically strengthened for the sake of our country's children. Long-term systemic racism and economic deprivation have devastated a disproportionate number of families affected by the child welfare system, ripening risk factors for child neglect and, less often, abuse. In the early days of the crisis, the immediate response of JCCA's donors and institutional partners to provide financial support to the families we serve was instructive. It engendered tremendous trust among our clients, relieving stress for caregivers and, in turn, improving engagement in therapeutic options. By bringing families relief in the face of unemployment, illness, and isolation, relationships with our clients evolved. No longer seen as threatening, we are supporting families' capacity to survive together. If we could provide this concrete support generally, we would be able to stabilize and empower caregivers far more effectively. 

Communicating with parents, young people, and foster families consistently throughout the pandemic has promoted each cohort's participation in our agency's practice, engendering a new level of trust and engagement. We have also had the unique opportunity to help our clients develop skills to increase their own self-advocacy behind the Black Lives Matter movement in their communities. The momentum of this period must not be lost as we involve families and young people in determining the best path forward as they move through the child welfare system. 

The COVID-19 crisis will drive paradigm shifts in almost every aspect of our lives: health care, education, relationships, and work spaces. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the inevitable shift in child welfare addresses inequities for families of color; empowers their participation; and, most importantly, acknowledges the role that we, as child welfare professionals, have played in a system that has often failed those we are committed to helping. Now is the time to design and build a family and child support system that heals the fractures of our society exposed by the pandemic, leveraging the strengths of our stakeholders, the expertise of professionals in the field, and the dedication of elected officials to commit the resources necessary to change the lives of children and young people in this country for the better.