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COVID-19’s long shadow is increasing concern for child protection, foster care in Idaho

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Idaho Department of Health and Welfare
Julie Sevcik (upper right) and Roxanne Printz (lower right) work for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare

In October, a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that “one U.S. child loses a parent or caregiver for every four associated deaths.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled it, “the hidden U.S. COVID-19 Pandemic.

Indeed, caregivers at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare are concerned, not just for what they have identified, but what will be revealed in the coming months and years.

“We have been concerned throughout the pandemic that we are not hearing about reports of child maltreatment because there are many children who are interacting outside of their family households during that time,” said Julie Sevcik, Policy Program Specialist at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Sevcik joined Roxanne Printz, Deputy Administrator for Family and Community Services at IDHW, in a conversation with Morning Edition host George Prentice. They talked about recent trends, the essential need to support their colleagues and an increased need to find new foster families.

“We are always concerned about making sure that children are in stable placements and that they don't experience additional trauma by having and experiencing multiple moves within foster care.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News Good morning. I'm George Prentice. The American Academy of Pediatrics says nearly 140,000 American children may have lost a caregiver or parent due to pandemic related causes. We're going to talk a bit about that and much more this morning. Roxanne Printz is here, a deputy administrator for Family and Community Services at the State Department of Health and Welfare. And Julie Sevcik is a policy program specialist at the department. Good morning to you, both.

ROXANNE PRINTZ: Good morning.

JULIE SEVCIK: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Before the pandemic, which is to say, fiscal years 2015 to 2019, Idaho saw about a 27 percent increase of children in foster care. How has the pandemic changed the number of kids going in or coming out of foster care?

SEVCIK: So, George, this is Julie. Family Services has seen a change in the number of children that we have come into contact with through safety assessments and through foster care placements during the pandemic. We've really utilized the guidance from the CDC and our local health districts throughout the pandemic to really assure that we are providing services to families as we come in contact with them. We also have utilized a lot of opportunities to talk with our peers and other states to learn how they have been addressing the needs of families and children during this time and adapted our policies and our processes to really make sure that we're including as many virtual opportunities as we can to make sure that we're seeing children in a timely manner, making sure that we're talking with parents, providing virtual visits. We really wanted to make sure that any opportunity that we had to really address the needs of children and their parents during the pandemic that we were looking for those throughout that whole process.

PRINTZ: This is Roxanne. I think that one of the strengths of Idaho is that we are small and one of the challenges of Idaho is that we are small. And so I guess if I would add in terms of some of being a more rural communities is that the communities really do rally around families to say here is a family's need and then have the community respond. I think it's really, you know, I think you've heard our legislators say this. I think you've heard our director say this, that really child safety is a community issue, not only just us as a as a child protection entity. And so I think, you know, there's just been some amazing stories where sure that there have been some frustrations with how do we do this work from a distance through WebEx and through other means of distance to make sure everybody is safe? I have seen school districts send out fliers of how do you know your child is safe or what to look for in lunchboxes? You know, we've had, you know, Casey Family programs, you know, reach out and say, you know, how, how do we make sure that information gets out? And I'm taking a look at the YMCA and working with just basic core real community values about how do we make sure that we wrap around our kids? While there's challenges, there certainly has been some really neat resiliency stories.

PRENTICE: Julie Sevcik, might you be afraid of…well, I guess we don't know what we don't know. Are you afraid that as the world steps out of the shadows in the coming months and especially next year, that we may discover more families and kids in need that have dropped off the radar because we are such a rural state?

SEVCIK: Yeah, George, we have been concerned throughout the pandemic that we are not hearing about reports of child maltreatment because there are many children who are interacting outside of their family households during that time. So we did see a decrease in the number of reports of maltreatment during the pandemic. But in the last several months, we have seen our those reports returned to normal numbers. So we know that now that children are back in school and beginning to interact with others. Those reports are going back to where we would normally see them. So I think we're seeing more children than we were able to during the pandemic. Our community is able to make those calls when they have a concern that a child is being neglected or abused.

PRINTZ: I think what I would add is that what we are seeing as numbers of reports, you know, as kids become more visible are increasing. I do think we see an increase in terms of our priorities of ones and party ones and party twos. And that really is more serious disclosure, more serious injuries. So again, not quite being able to to really analyze what exactly that means, but we are we have seen that uptick in more serious reports.

PRENTICE: But just as a layperson, a priority one would be what a significant sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

PRINTZ: Correct. So priority ones are sexual abuse or an injury, such as a bruise to a child who is younger or sexual abuse, where a child has direct or allegedly direct contact with the offender and then party is or just more of a physical abuse of a child of an older age or sexual abuse where a child does not have direct contact with an alleged offender.

PRENTICE: Full disclosure I worked with and for foster kids, a lot of them through a good chunk of my adult life some years ago. And the problem then, as it had been for many years before, was the number of children who had multiple placements, basically too many kids being bounced around in too many placements. Can I assume that that has improved?

SEVCIK: George, this is Julie. So I do think that you can assume that that has improved. We are always concerned about making sure that children are in stable placements and that they don't experience additional trauma by having and experiencing multiple moves within foster care. So one of the things that we believe Idaho does really well is we begin mitigating that risk at the very beginning of a case by making every effort we can to identify a relative or a fictive kin who that family or that child could be placed with as soon as they come into foster care. So rather than experiencing a placement with someone they do not know who's a licensed foster parent. Our hope is that we would place that child with someone who is known to them to help, to really make sure that they are comfortable in that setting. And that would also be someone who is really aware of that child's needs and able to support the child and the parent through the reunification process. So data really shows nationwide that when children are placed with their relatives, they are more successful in their placement. They're more stable. Relatives are willing to deal with quite a bit more of challenging behaviors than someone who's not known to the child. In addition, relatives are really great at helping to mentor the birth parents and help that reunification process.

PRENTICE: Can you talk about the stress that you and your colleagues experience in doing what you do? How do you keep burnout from depleting your ranks?

PRINTZ: I, you know, George, I really appreciate the question, and I think coming from you, it really sounds like you have worked with the system quite closely because I think I it is it is a very difficult, challenging job. And so I think on one hand, you know, Idaho is a state who hires licensed social workers. You know, there might be an opportunity to be more creative, but I will say that our social workers come to us from our local universities as well as other universities with kind of a core foundation of how to approach families. And very well informed with this is how you do the job and this is how you do the job well. And so, you know, they come to us trained. I think that as an administrator, what we really want to take a look at is there's a couple of different factors, some we can control and some that we can the nature of the work, what they see in terms of injuries, parents trauma and loss, that is things that we can't change. Those are things that we sign up for when we become social workers in the child welfare system. And so we really want to be able to know that reality when something is tragic in our day to day. Work, do we have counseling services, do we have debriefings just as a hospital or law enforcement would have we have those resources available? And then fundamentally, we really want to make sure that the workers get continuous training and that they can feel confident that they are honing their skills so that they know that they're at least that they can't control everything what happens in a situation with the family? But ah, do we know where to target and do they feel confident that they have the skills to do so so that ongoing training? And then I guess, you know, for any of our social workers who are listening, it really is important to have that work / home balance, right? That is absolutely important.
And so I think as an administrator, some of the things that we do need to certainly pay attention to and control are things such as case looks and caseloads are high right now. And so there is a piece around and I think the country is is experiencing a crisis in how do you find workers, you know, it's not just in this field or child welfare. I think everybody is experiencing that. So I think we have creatively taken a look at recruitment bonuses. We have implemented retention bonuses. We have listening. Sessions called fireside chats where where our our staff can come to us and say, Have you thought about doing this is what would help? And then putting that into our strategic plan to research, you know what we can do. We have implemented case aids called PSR psychosocial rehab specialists. And so while you might have a very a worker might have a very large caseload, there are things that we haven't had in the past for transportation help. And so putting those supports in and of course, George, I don't think that I could ever say that it's enough, but I definitely think that, you know, to pay attention to that and really constantly evolving or brainstorming how to best support our workers and give them time back so they can really do the work they want to do, which is with kids and families.

PRENTICE: Are you actively seeking foster families right now?

SEVCIK: George, this is Julie again, so I'm going to take that one, because this, as you mentioned, this is an area that's near and dear to my heart. I've spent much of my career working and walking alongside foster parents. It's it's a great topic and we are always in search of foster parents. The same as this is a difficult time in trying to identify and recruit staff. This has also been a challenging time to recruit foster parents. And so any time we can talk about how much we appreciate our current foster parents and are looking for additional parents, it's an important thing to talk about. So what I would say is that we are really struggling right now in identifying families who are able and willing to care for sibling groups and children who are age 12 and older. Mm-hmm. So we're really in need of those temporary foster care families who can be a support to an entire family while they're being a foster parent to the child. So we really are recruiting foster parents who can be that support to birth parents and not a substitute to the parent. We really want this to be a relationship between our foster parents, our biological parents and the children in the home where the parents can be mentored by our foster parents, even after the case has been closed and the children have reunified with their parents. We have seen that amazing success stories where our foster parents stay in contact with the children and families that they worked with through the foster care system and have remained as a support to those parents.

Great stories about going to children's weddings even many years down the road. So that's what we're looking for right now at any time. If somebody is interested in becoming a foster parent in the state of Idaho, we would encourage them to call 211, which will connect them with our care line, where they will receive some information and they will be connected to a resource. Peer mentor and a resource peer mentor is an individual who has experience as a foster, as a foster parent, and we'll be able to answer those really day to day questions about what is it like to be a foster parent? What are the challenges that us that I should be prepared for and we'll be able to help that family to make a decision? Is this the right time for me to be a foster parent? Are there changes that I need to make first within my home environment? Or are there areas that I need to address within my own work schedule or anything like that so that when they do apply, it's the time that they're ready to really go forward, start that training and begin to accept children into their homes.

PRENTICE: They are Julie Sevcik, policy program specialist, and Roxanne Printz, deputy administrator for family and Community Services. They are at the State Department of Health and Welfare. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for giving us some of your time this morning and have yourself a really good rest of your day.

SEVCIK: Thank you, George again for letting us come and talk about foster parents and the foster care system, I guess.

PRINTZ: And this is Roxanne. Again, just a shout out to our partners, whether it be court, law enforcement, foster parents and of course, our workers. Just an amazing system in Idaho who really care about kids and families. Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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