Abstract: Child Welfare Practice Changes during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact on Access to Visitation and Services for Parents Involved with Child Protective Services (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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237P Child Welfare Practice Changes during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impact on Access to Visitation and Services for Parents Involved with Child Protective Services

Friday, January 13, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Kristen Seay, PhD, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Amanda Stafford McRell, MPA, Doctoral Candidate, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Breanne Grace, PhD, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Background/Purpose: During the COVID-19 pandemic, child protective services (CPS) had to quickly adapt agency policies to follow public health recommendations to avoid social contact in order to curb COVID-19 infections. To better understand how these policy and practice decisions shaped parents’ access to their children and their service utilization with CPS and partner agencies, this study reviewed documentation of state CPS agency procedures related to COVID-19 for state-level child welfare practice during the earliest phases of the pandemic.

Methods: Between March 2020 and May 2020, a systematic point-in-time search was conducted to collect publicly accessible online documents on policies related to COVID-19. Documents describing parent services, experiences, and parent contact with their children in foster care were included in this analysis. Following O’Leary’s qualitative document analysis protocol, data was located for 49 states and the District of Columbia (n=50) and analyzed. Each state’s policies were compiled into a single document for analysis. These documents ranged from 1 to 222 pages per state for a total of 2208 pages. Documents were analyzed in NVIVO 12 using Miles and Huberman’s (1994) qualitative content analysis strategy to develop typologies and taxonomies within and between state policies. Consequently, both inductive and deductive approaches were used with the goal of understanding individual state policy approaches as well as overarching themes on a national level.

Findings: Policy changes impacted parents’ access to children in care and service availability. Documents indicated that parents experienced major losses in access to visitation with their children in foster care. Many states turned to virtual/phone visitation and parents were not allowed physical access to their children. Factors impacting this decision included supervised/unsupervised visits, timeline in the pandemic, and staff availability. While strategies for engaging with infants/toddlers were suggested (e.g., play peek-a-boo with infants, read the same book as the foster parent), these were likely insufficient to maintain attention and continue strong connection with young children. There was limited evidence of providing technology to support connections (e.g., California—youth cellphones). Documentation more often addressed foster parents’ concerns (635 references) compared to families of origin (394 references). Findings indicate service provision by CPS and partner agencies was modified or limited during the early pandemic as many in-person services moved to virtual delivery. When services and visitation were allowed to continue, extensive safety protocols created barriers to access that likely limited access to services or to children (technology barriers, symptom screenings, masks, rapid rule changes, evolving guidance)

Conclusions/Implications: Lack of access to children, changes in service delivery, and a lack of clarity for families of origin likely resulted in substantial added stress for parents involved with CPS, more so for families with children in care. Further evaluation of practice modifications during the COVID-19 pandemic is warranted to develop best practices. Additionally, research should further examine how these changes may have impacted timeliness to reunification for families. Resources are needed to support behavioral health.