Child welfare workers are facing unique challenges during the pandemic. Traditionally, their work is largely in person, and even the most basic processes are highly reliant on a human touch. This human infrastructure is not set up to respond to a crisis that will likely leave them with fewer staff – and even fewer opportunities to see people face to face.

Since the outbreak started, many jurisdictions have transitioned to “virtual work.” Often that has meant individual case managers muscling through the challenges – and doing whatever it takes to communicate with their clients. Case workers might be using Zoom with some clients and FaceTime with others. While this patchwork of tools enables an agency to limp along, it doesn’t raise the system to a new standard of practice. It also presents some risks. Were a case worker to fall ill and be unable to work, the person who picks up that workload would have to restart the discovery process to figure out which family is using which tool.

Other jurisdictions have formally adopted business tools to enable their workforces. These platforms work well for those of us who have already worked in a professional setting. However, they may be more of a challenge for new users, such as the grandmother who is also the foster parent for her grandchildren.

Does all this mean that child welfare systems should abandon virtual client interactions as soon as possible? Not at all. In fact, the COVID-19 outbreak is helping to demonstrate that child welfare systems can and should incorporate virtual interactions into “business as usual.” While there will always be a need for face-to-face engagement, in some circumstances virtual interactions can reduce stress for frontline resources and the families they serve. Virtual interactions enable case workers to meet with more families, addressing questions and providing needed information more quickly. This approach also supports greater flexibility for case workers in how and where they perform their jobs.

Choosing a sound platform is a critical enabler for short- and long-term success. There are plenty of available options, but child welfare decision-makers need to evaluate based on some clear criteria. An agency’s standard platform must be free, easy to use for all kinds of users and already in wide use by the general population. It also must be strong and secure enough to meet the demands of child welfare.

Even when a chosen platform is well known and easy to use, this transition will still require education and support for frontline resources. Meeting virtually brings different dynamics than meeting in person; case workers will need to be upskilled in the “how-tos” of digital interactions. That includes everything from the seemingly silly (don’t put the phone on your lap lest you invite everyone to look up your nose!) to the subtle and sophisticated (learning to get people comfortable sharing information and honing an ability to “read” emotions without the benefit of body language).

Child welfare’s response to COVID-19 has taught us that we CAN engage families virtually. Now our challenge is to build on this unplanned “proof of concept” by making sound technical decisions – and surrounding those decisions with a thoughtful and thorough approach to preparing case workers.

Read more about our recommendations for child welfare agencies responding to the COVID-10 outbreak. Let’s continue the conversation. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

Molly Tierney

Managing Director – Public Service, Child Welfare, North America

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