Child Welfare: Lessons Learned from COVID-19

Jul 22, 2020, 13:00 PM by Brady Birdsong, Berry Dunn, and Kristina Stevens, Accenture
Members of CompTIA's Human Services Information Technology Advisory Group (HSITAG) reflect on lessons the industry and government have learned during the ongoing pandemic.

Albert Einstein said, “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” To say this global pandemic has impacted people and systems in ways we haven’t seen before would be a significant understatement. In most emergency situations aid, comfort, and relief are provided through high touch solutions. However, COVID-19 has challenged the world to respond differently; high touch is precisely what’s needed yet is the very thing that is prohibited. 

As we move forward in the COVID era, we should begin to assess what we did, how we adjusted, and what we learned. Now is the time to heed Einstein’s advice and examine the future opportunities:  What are the ways in which we may operate differently?

Armed with new experiences from the current crisis, we must weigh in on the shifts we made out of necessity and the creative solutions we adopted that helped us move forward quickly to deal with COVID-19 impacts. How might these experiences inform policy and practice changes to improve child and family outcomes? Let’s examine some of the changes that have “worked” in the past four months and use those lessons learned to inform the work ahead and build a set of tools for the future.

The following topics are worthy of further examination:

  • Technology: For decades, we have used technology to facilitate the input and tracking of information.In the last few months, however, agencies have ramped up the use of technology to facilitate client interactions.Arguably in-person contact is preferred but leveraging virtual technology as a communication tool is helping agencies increase the length and frequency of contacts with the families and children they serve.The need to quarantine forced us to lean in on tools that could facilitate face-to-face virtual contact so agencies would not lose critically important connections with children and families.Evaluating what we’ve learned over the past several months can help us better define what “contact” means and what it may look like in the future.Our goal is to never stop improving important relationships for children, youth in care and their families.
  • Cross-sector collaboration: The pandemic has served as a reminder about the importance of collaboration. We’ve been reminded that we don’t and can’t operate independently of one another.Successful agencies recognize that individuals are part of larger ecosystems and build processes and systems that facilitate the sharing of information.Developing robust governance structures and enhanced interoperability are necessary to effectively and efficiently deploy resources to provide a more streamlined and less fragmented customer experience.Families faced with feeding data into multiple systems often find themselves in a morass of repetition; submit information, request support, repeat.Now is the time to engage families and develop collaborative, cross sector solutions that reflect and respect the way families envision systems working for them.
  • Regulations:The pandemic has also forced agencies to take stock of the legislative regulations that were conceived as a way to help manage the complexity of Child Welfare. Are these regulations still appropriate? Surely there will be practices that can be abandoned while others warrant a deeper review.How might we adjust regulations so that we can improve how, when, and under what circumstances we engage with families.To amend any regulations, we must engage a wide-range of stakeholders including; community partners, the advocacy community, federal partners and cross sector partners.Together, these child welfare stakeholders hold the same shared goal – improving child and family outcomes.
  • Workforce: Faced with a swift pivot to remote working, agencies had to make quick decisions on the virtual tools that could help them continue serving families.Now that we’ve had several months to use new tools and techniques, which ones worked and which didn’t? What could we have done differently? Did contact improve or diminish?Did outcomes improve or decline? Were there economic benefits? Did remote work impact caseworker stress or trauma?Remote work will continue to be part of an agency’s process, and we have opportunity to evaluate how it should work going forward.

To be sure, the ripple effects of the pandemic have been and will continue to be significant.  What is in front of us in many ways is unknown.  It is possible that what lies ahead is a hybrid of what we used to do and what we’ve had to do – not an either/or but instead a both/and. Through the commitment and perseverance of those on the front lines, agencies will continue to do what they’ve always done – support children and families.  Now is the opportunity to take stock of how we’ve shifted our thinking and determine if necessity can really breed innovation.