Family Services connecting with community despite pandemic

DOVER — When it comes to the role of the Division of Family Services, it is important to maintain connections with families and children, even as the coronavirus pandemic has hit the brakes on personal contact in day-to-day life.

“That isolation is something that becomes very difficult to manage, the more time it is, you don’t have access,” said Trenee Parker, director of the division.

With Gov. John Carney’s mandate that Delaware public and charter schools close through May 15, and that Delawareans stay home except for essential purposes, how to meet children’s needs while practicing social distancing involves some creativity, Ms. Parker said.

That’s especially true as, nationwide, child welfare systems are seeing a reduction in reports coming in, Ms. Parker said.

“For us in Delaware, and I’m sure a lot of other jurisdictions across the country, our top referral sources are education, health care and law enforcement. And with school not being in, that obviously is having an impact. A lot of visits that children would typically be having with pediatricians and other doctors aren’t happening now because they’re considered non-emergency.”

Ms. Parker said DFS is still doing home visits and taking calls.

She said the agency is relying on guidance from the Division of Public Health by asking questions designed to screen for possible virus exposure before meeting with families.

“We are making sure that we are protecting our staff, making those contacts and making sure that we’re protecting families as well,” she said.

She added the agency is also being mindful of what families’ needs are, “and are conducting interviews in ways that they feel comfortable, maybe doing them outside and things of that nature,” she said.

But the agency has also gone digital. Staff members have taken to Zoom, Skype or Facetime, she added.

“Having that ability to see someone, even if on a computer screen or a phone screen, does provide a little bit more of a connection than just talking to someone on the phone,” she said. “For families that we’re working with in the community, we’re trying to be mindful of their needs and ask what works best for them.”

For foster families, she said they’re using those platforms to make sure they are seeing the children regularly.

“Like any agency that has contact with the public, one of the things you have to be concerned about is balancing the safety of your staff versus the obligations of your agency. For DFS, our primary obligation is to child safety,” she said.

The agency had to determine how to keep staff safe, through personal protective equipment which, Ms. Parker said, “in the world of social work, we really have never talked about before.”

With schools closed, the department has had to adapt to the challenges that presents. Ms. Parker said in that elementary schools across the state, the children’s department has family crisis therapists working with children who require involvement from DFS, but their cases don’t “rise to the level of abuse and neglect,” Ms. Parker said.

“They are having some outreach with the families to make sure that everything is going OK,” she said. “We as state employees are all just working differently now. We still have the ability to have that reach out to schools to find out if anything is happening, if there are concerns.”

She said they have community partners, such as the Office of the Child Advocate and the Beau Biden Foundation.

“We certainly have become more flexible as an agency and, honestly, just as a society about how we approach things,” she said.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility to help children be safe,” she continued. “We spend a lot of time focusing on mandatory reporters and folks who really have more contact with kids and have that obligation, but any time someone has a concern about a child, they should consider themselves a mandatory reporter and they should reach out.”

Reports can be made at iseethesigns.org or 800-292-9582.

Statewide, programming that involves children and teenagers has shifted to meet the current demands while also adhering to social distancing.

At Delaware Guidance Services, programming has moved to telehealth, said Yvette Aviles, Kent County outpatient clinical coordinator, LPCMH.

She noted, with schools closed, counselors have been supplied with the proper equipment so they can provide services at a distance.

“The children and teens, and the ages that we serve, are not experiencing a lapse in care because we’re still able to work with them and help them through this difficult time,” she said. “Obviously students and their families are experiencing a new normal. So we’re trying to work with children and families to help them organize themselves around this new normal.”

She said Delaware Guidance Services get referrals from a number of places, such as doctor’s offices or schools, and they are still seeing referrals.

She noted that when the organization began moving services to this formatting, staff had to consider aligning with regulations and guidelines, and making sure that families were equipped with the proper technology to participate.

“They’re using cell phones, they’re using tablets, they’re using laptops or computer desktops. Anything that we can do to be able to connect with them and reach them, since we can’t do it in person because of social distancing, we’ve kind of worked through those kinks and we’re able to provide that service now,” she said.

She noted that the sessions are beginning to feel normal again.

“We do have the ability to connect with them, and to see their facial reactions or their body movements and see how they’re connecting with their families at home. We’re still able to do the same therapeutic work with the same quality of work via telehealth,” she said. “I think it’s pleasantly surprising how much the parents and caretakers are willing to participate and have their children participate in these sessions while they’re at home.”

For DEMCO — Delaware Multicultural and Civic Organization — championing student and community success is a significant part of their work, and that has had to adapt to the circumstances.

“People still need help,” said Leandra Marshall, vice president for external relations, development and outreach.

She noted that DEMCO is an organization people are accustomed to coming to, and social distancing presents some difficulties.

“It’s really a challenge for DEMCO because we’re people-oriented so we’re always in the community with people,” she said. “And now, if you are a really indigenous community grass-roots organization, it is hard even for people to not seek us out.”

Providing academic support is part of what DEMCO does, and they are still seeking to fill that gap and have moved to a virtual program and are using the organization’s website and Facebook to connect with the community.

She noted that with schools sending home academic packets during the school closure, some parents may find assisting their children challenging.

“We want to help them. We want to help those kind of parents who feel challenged in any area, particularly math and sciences — but we will do English, we’ll do any of that,” she said.

She added the community and its people are resilient.

“When our backs are against the wall, we become more creative and we learn how to work together, and I think that is a big deal, just to be able to work together on all of these initiatives,” she said.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 1 guidance

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