COVID-19 has taught us many things about how families and children navigated their lives before the pandemic. This was evidenced in disparities in many areas that were highlighted during this time. While it is clear that every family has protective factors, it is the risk factors that influenced how they coped and ultimately, will survive the global crisis. This is all before agencies become involved. Educators, practitioners and child welfare systems have been shown where and potentially why disparities exist, which is vital to minimizing, eliminating and mitigating their impact on lives.
In this tumultuous atmosphere, agency staff were challenged to respond creatively to ongoing disaster-related challenges and continue working with children, families and youth while keeping their own families safe. We can now begin to assess how well we did in supporting families and children and consider areas where we might do things differently.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit communities of color especially hard for a variety of reasons, including higher levels of underlying health conditions and inequitable access to resources and services due in large part to a history of racial inequity and oppression (Wilson et al., 2020). The pandemic has provided child welfare agencies with an opportunity to rebuild systems in which families can equitably access preventive resources and services that can mitigate the impact of a disaster (such as access to technology infrastructure, child care resources, preventive medical care, and affordable sources of food and housing). For example, agencies might take a closer look at barriers to accessing services and resources such as location, scheduling, technology availability, and staff approachability.
Because disasters affect an agency’s ability to provide services for children, youth, and families, proactively planning for disasters should be an agency priority. Over the past year, it has become clear that cooperating with families, youth, community organizations, and service providers can prepare agencies and families to respond more effectively to disasters by better understanding family needs and implementing supports before disasters occur.
Engaging youth and families in disaster planning and response, listening closely to their input, and following their lead is especially important to ensure that everyone has what they need to continue their daily activities, such as school and work, as much as possible. For example, one state’s youth advisory board sponsored a town hall to help connect young people currently and formerly in foster care to technology and self-care resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coping With Disasters and Strengthening Systems is a new series that offers information and resources to help facilitate agency collaboration with youth, families, and other stakeholders and provides additional content on planning for, responding to, and recovering from disasters.
According to a recent Children’s Bureau (2021) Information Memorandum that shares lessons learned from the pandemic, flexibility needs to be built into the child welfare system at all levels and in all areas before disasters occur. Some of these areas mentioned include the following:
- Policies and guidance related to funding
- Eligibility rules for service
- Infrastructure to disseminate information in languages other than English
- Rules around technology use for virtual meetings and telework
Technology use during the pandemic is a good example of how existing resources can be re-purposed to address new needs if the existing rules for use are flexible. Although child welfare agencies have long used technology for communication (e.g., email) and information storage and tracking, new uses for existing technology emerged as critical for family well-being during the pandemic (e.g., using videoconferencing technologies to keep children and youth digitally connected to their parents and siblings) (American Enterprise Institute, 2021). Flexible policies around technology would allow many agencies to take advantage of this resource and others like it earlier when responding to disaster.
Equity matters—everyday. Collaborative disaster planning that includes family, child and youth voices is critical. Flexibility built into systems helps to support and strengthen families, appropriately, responsively address and meet unique needs and strategize solutions at all levels of engagement. The pandemic has taught us all that being proactive in service design, interventions and supports before disasters occur, position us and families to respond better to and recover from crises with minimal harm.
Children’s Bureau Information Memorandum 21-03 offers additional information about ways the child welfare field can mindfully incorporate the lessons learned from the pandemic and other disasters. In addition, the Center’s Building Capacity for Disaster Preparedness at a Child Welfare Agency webpage provides resources to help agencies think about ways to adjust their policies and practices in response to disaster.
Throughout 2020, child welfare agencies continued to focus on keeping children safe and supporting the well-being of children and families in the face of significant challenges. Now, they can use the lessons learned to begin the work of recovery.