“Caring deeply, during COVID and always”: A conversation about Texas CPS caseworkers as essential front-line workers during COVID-19

Connect the Dots. Happy babyIn this July 2020 edition of Connecting the Dots, we are highlighting the frontline response efforts from caseworkers as they continue to provide services to youth and families. To get a better idea of how COVID-19 has shaped Texas caseworkers’ day-to-day experiences, we connected with Erica Bañuelos, MSW, LCPAA, CPS Director of Field at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Erica was kind enough to share her thoughts and experiences, which you can read below.

TXICFW: How has CPS work been adapted to continue to protect children during COVD-19?

ERICA: CPS caseworkers have done a great job adjusting to what’s happening with COVID-19. They have had to alter the way they practice from one day to the next and the change has been jarring. But we have an incredibly committed workforce who adapted their interviewing, assessing, and engagement skills quickly.  

One of the biggest changes caseworkers made was switching to virtual contact with families. Caseworkers have had to learn new and creative ways of assessing children and families through video calls. I received an email about one caseworker who was spotted playing peek-a-boo with a child to playfully engage her on a video call.

Another change is virtual child-parent visits. In supervising these online visits, we have noticed some positive effects. For example, foster parents are engaging more with biological parents, and biological parents are getting to see where and how their child is being cared for. We’ve also seen that parent-child visits are occurring more frequently and consistently in the virtual format since the barriers of finding transportation and agreeing on locations are gone.

TXICFW: When we talk about frontline workers, we most typically hear people speak of medical professionals and first responders. Can you give us some examples of how caseworkers are on the COVID-19 front lines right now, perhaps in ways that many people might not know about?

ERICA: I would say that we are often the silent partners to many of the more commonly talked about essential workers – meaning CPS staff are present when law enforcement officers enter homes and they’re in hospitals working alongside nurses and doctors who treat children. 

Caseworkers are constantly assessing the safety of their clients, which means they are still in the field having face-to-face contacts with families in their homes. This looks a little different now because of safety precautions like social distancing. But if there’s a child who needs our intervention, regardless of possible illness in the home, we must go in and help. Right now, when we enter a home, we wear personal protective equipment to safeguard ourselves from infection, though that doesn’t always take away the concern about exposure staff may feel. But caseworkers understand that no child who might be in danger can be left in that situation. Our team is resilient, and they know the importance of what they do, even in this uncertain time. 

TXICFW: Are there special ways you and others involved in CPS leadership are supporting front-line staff during COVID-19?

ERICA: Early on, our leadership team started planning concrete ways to support workers, so they could continue to provide families with what they need. Commissioner Jaime Masters worked diligently to ensure staff got the necessary personal protective equipment, prompting many caseworkers to write in and express their appreciation. We’ve consulted with other states to see how they’re responding to COVID-19 and what lessons we can learn from their approaches. This has allowed our leadership team to quickly develop new processes. We also developed an internal web page dedicated to COVID-19 where caseworkers can find guidance on adapting to this new way of following best practices.

 TXICFW: Has there been a particular moment of connection or compassion that you’ve either heard of or witnessed by caseworkers during this outbreak?

ERICA: Our workers have been very focused on making this time a little easier and brighter for the children we serve. They’ve organized drive-by parades for foster youth whose high school graduation plans were ruined by COVID-19 and drive-by birthday celebrations for foster children. I’ve been told of caseworkers who are using video calls to help children with their homework. 

For me, the most heartwarming stories have been the virtual adoptions that are taking place across the state. The pandemic hasn’t stopped children from joining their forever families through virtual court hearings. In these online celebrations, you get to see new families being created with the support of CPS staff who have been there every step of the way. Our workers care, and they care deeply. That’s true not just during COVID-19, but always. 

How do you think caseworkers are especially positioned to help our community during the COVID-19 outbreak?

ERICA: The work we do to serve children and families must be done in partnership with a community that stands with us. I always tell staff we can’t achieve the best outcomes if we’re not working hand-in-hand with the community. This philosophy has inspired caseworkers to be resourceful in acquiring services for families during COVID. I’ve witnessed caseworkers creatively securing a wide spectrum of services for families – from mental health and drug treatment through telehealth to providing the basics like food and diapers. The connections caseworkers have in their communities directly benefit the families they serve. So much of a caseworker’s job is creatively troubleshooting obstacles and gaps in service for their clients, and COVID-19 has added another layer to that. 

TXICFW: How can people best help frontline caseworkers right now?

ERICA: I would like to remind the community that a pandemic doesn’t stop abuse or neglect; it doesn’t stop the need for children to be reunited with their parents; it doesn’t stop the need to keep children connected to their families; and it doesn’t stop our desire as CPS employees to help the children who need us. A pandemic won’t stop our work because we are essential to ensuring children are safe, and families are supported.

 To learn more about how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is offering support to their employees and their communities served, please visit their COVID-19 resources page on their website. If you are looking for ways to help DFPS caseworkers right now, here is a list of items currently needed at DFPS resources rooms. If you are interested in donating sewn masks for caseworkers to wear during home visits, please consider contacting the DFPS Community Engagement team.