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  • Jenny Stotts

Advocating during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Would you have guessed on New Year’s Eve that 2020 would be the year of terms like “social distancing” and “self-quarantine?” I would not. But, here we are. Our CASA Team has been challenged to venture into new territory to carry on our advocacy work, while having less and less traditional in-person communication. We are still figuring a lot of this out as we go. But, here is something I know for sure: We will continue to be Court Appointed Special Advocates and we will not stop standing up for what kids need and deserve. I’m writing this after a call with our Volunteer Coordinators, during which I asked, “How are our CASAs doing?” The response was that CASAs are getting creative and working hard to protect and advocate for children and their best interests, while brainstorming ways to support caregivers and families during this uncertain time.

As you all know by now, when we temporarily waive face-to-face contact with children, we require more frequent contact by other means such as phone calls or video chatting. As someone who often tries to talk to my own 12 year old on the phone… that’s a lot of “uh-huhs” and “fines.” To help, I’ve created a guide with some ideas and techniques to enhance your work as you transition to this temporary period of “Advocating from Afar.”

Much of our assessment work in CASA revolves around three primary best interest factors: Safety (S), Well-Being (W) and Permanency (P). This guide is not meant to be an exhaustive list or a checklist that must be followed, but rather a few idea-generating techniques or questions so CASA Volunteers can continue their work on behalf of our children.

Tips for Connecting with the Child

During video chats, phone calls or texts with the child directly, be sure to keep your questions and prompts appropriate for the child’s age, development and personal history. In some instances, it may not be appropriate to talk to a child over the phone about an intense trauma experience, because you won’t be there to provide the ongoing support after. Build conversations that center around Safety, Well-Being and Permanency.

As in traditional home visits or interviews, it is important to note who is listening to the conversation and to be strategic in the types of questions you ask, since some questions might create unintended risk factors.

Just like a traditional home visit or interview, try not to start “with the case.” Spend some time checking in and chatting. Let the child tell you a funny joke or story.

Sometimes children may not engage easily in a phone or video format. Consider engaging them through enrichment activities. Examples include:

  • Read a book together over video chat.

  • Ask them to show you their art.

  • Assist with school work by phone or video, if possible.

Sample Prompts or Questions:

  • Do you feel safe at home? (S)

  • What happens when someone breaks the rules at home? (S)

  • Who comes to visit you at home? (S)

  • What has worried you this week? (W)

  • What is the best part of today? (W)

  • Tell me about your school work. (W)

  • What are you reading right now? (W)

  • How are you keeping in touch with your family? (P)

  • Have you thought about the future? (P)

Tips for Connecting with the Caregiver

Many foster parents have multiple children in multiple grade levels. They are managing reactive behaviors, trauma triggers and homeschooling. They are also accountable to a number of professionals and likely find themselves peppered with questions often. Be a listening ear.

For many families, they are adjusting to children being home during school hours, while also managing the safety and access to resources in their home. Be mindful that educational activities might not be the top need for a particular family at a particular time, especially if they are facing housing or food insecurity. Remember that basic needs must be met first!

Sample Prompts or Questions:

  • How are you? Is everyone healthy? (W)

  • How is the child maintaining a connection with their family? (P)

  • Do you have the needed technology to maintain that connection? (P)

  • How is homeschooling going? Any challenges you weren’t expecting? (W)

  • Do you have everything you need during this time? (W, S)

  • How are you managing behavioral issues that come up? (S)

  • What are your go-to stress management tricks? (S)

  • Tell me what your family is doing for fun or entertainment. (W)

  • How has the child transitioned to telehealth counseling? (W)

  • What worries you about the child or your family? (W, S)

Tips for Collaborating

Collaborate with the Child Protection Caseworker as much as possible. During a time when many staff are working remotely and access to their desktops may be limited, take a moment to check in with the primary caseworker on your case and work out a plan for how you will stay in touch. Is texting or emailing preferred to phone calls and voicemails? Could you set up a bi-weekly call to quickly check in and share information?

Check in with multiple people who can speak to the child’s safety and well-being on a regular basis. Examples might include:

  • Child and Siblings

  • Caregivers

  • Relatives

  • Teachers (some teachers are involved in virtual instruction)

  • Counselors

  • Health Care Providers

  • Caseworker

  • Case Managers

Plan early for case review and team meetings. These important, collaborative meetings are often occurring by conference call or video conference.

  • Touch base with the facilitator a day or two in advance to confirm that you have the correct dial in or log in instructions.

  • Try to log on a few minutes in advance to troubleshoot any potential connectivity issues.

  • It can sometimes be challenging to make sure your perspective is heard or shared during conference calls. A helpful tip is to take brief notes throughout the meeting and then ask questions or share your concerns all at once.

Juvenile Court has not ceased operations during this time, although procedures and practice are different now. Many hearings may be happening exclusively by phone. In others, there may be some individuals physically in the courtroom together, with others participating by phone.

  • Like always, a CASA staff member will participate with you during all hearings. During telephonic hearings, the Judge or Magistrate will give everyone an opportunity to speak. It is suggested that you remain muted until you are prompted to speak to eliminate background noises that may interfere with the recording equipment.

  • Reports are still required. As staff are primarily working remotely and only entering the courthouse 1-2 times per week, it is helpful to submit written reports to the staff via email 10-14 days in advance of the hearing. This gives staff time to review and file within the legal timeframes for filing.

This is not an exhaustive list, but is rather meant to get you thinking and give you ideas for starting points in your work with children and families. During a time when children and families are interacting with fewer professionals and supports, frequent contact and advocating for needed services will be critical. There may be times when the response you get from service providers is “we can’t do that because of the pandemic.” That’s ok. Don’t get discouraged, but don’t give up. Take a moment and consider if some creative, out-of-the-box thinking might offer up some solutions. Adopt a team approach and never hesitate to call the CASA Team. We remain available by cell phone and email. And we are eager to support your work. Thank you!

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