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TAMPA — Eyes on the child is a bedrock principle for foster care workers who routinely go into troubled homes to see that children are safe.
But in the midst of the coronavirus, the safety of Florida’s most at-risk children is often being assessed through computer screens as agencies comply with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order limiting face-to-face contact for state agencies.
Case managers are using Skype and other video-conferencing software to comply with state law that requires them to lay eyes on children in their care every 30 days. Guardian ad Litem workers and volunteers, who advocate for the children in foster care, have also limited face-to-face visits.
“It does take out a level of comfort — it’s almost like you’re working blind,” said Tabitha Lambert, circuit director for the Guardian Ad Litem program in Hillsborough County.
The main exception is for child protective investigators who are still being asked to go into homes to look into reports of abuse and neglect. In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, sheriff’s offices have equipped the investigators, who are trained civilians, with gloves and hand sanitizer.
“They have been advised to limit their time in the homes, use gloves, and try not to touch anything," said Maj. Christi Esquinaldo, who heads up the Child Protective Investigative Division in the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office.
The pandemic has affected virtually every part of Florida’s child welfare system. Only essential court hearings are taking place and children who need therapy for issues like trauma are mainly relying on telemedicine. With schools closed, foster parents have had to switch to being full-time caregivers. Agencies are also trying to figure out if they can license new foster homes based on virtual walk-throughs.
Officials fear that children outside of foster care may be more at risk of abuse and neglect as the closure of schools and stay-at-home orders mean they are isolated with parents stressed about the virus and job security. Of particular concern is that children are no longer being seen by teachers, who are classified by the state as mandatory reporters of abuse and neglect.
As often occurs during school holidays, the number of calls referred to Hillsborough County investigators fell by about 30 percent during the spring break week. Officials fear those numbers will remain lower because there are fewer eyes on children.
“It’s a huge concern," said Amy Foster, a St. Petersburg council member and executive director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay. “Childcare and teachers are the front line. If kids aren’t being seen, how are we going to know they’re safe?”
So far no Tampa Bay foster children or child welfare workers have tested positive for the coronavirus. But a couple of Pinellas foster homes are self-quarantining and test results are pending on about a dozen children and one staffer who were in contact with someone who was potentially exposed to the virus, said Chris Card, chief of community-based care for Eckerd Connects, the lead foster care agency in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The agency is doing most of its work through telephone and video-conferencing.
Many of the calls case managers have to make are routine, such as checking on how a foster child is settling in or that foster parents have everything they need.
But case managers also keep tabs on children whose parents are working through anger management or parenting classes after being reported to the abuse hotline. In cases deemed to be higher risk, case managers are checking in more frequently.
Eckerd Connects has also devised “yard visits,” for instances where a video meeting doesn’t provide enough reassurance. The visit happens outside the family’s front door where case managers can look over children and talk with parents while maintaining a safe distance.
Those families are screened ahead of time to make sure no one has coronavirus symptoms or has recently traveled abroad, Card said.
Essential court hearings and some adoptions are still taking place mainly through video-conferencing, but Card expects that some children will end up staying in foster care longer because of the pandemic.
“Most cases will not progress very much in the next two months,” he said.
In better times, people randomly turn up at A Kid’s Place looking to donate food or supplies or just asking if they can volunteer at the group foster home in Brandon.
Now, access to the campus, which is home to 58 foster children, is restricted to staffers. It has limited drop-off donations to food, paper products and cleaning supplies.
The closure of schools has put a strain on the home’s budget and has come at a time when donations are down because of the coronavirus crisis, said Chief Executive Officer Brad Gregory. It must provide more meals for children no longer being fed at school and keep more workers on campus to comply with state-mandated staffing ratios.
It also meant the home had to obtain computers and tablets for children to begin online classes this week. The home doesn’t have room to keep every child 6 feet apart while they are studying, so efforts to prevent the coronavirus are mainly focused on keeping the campus isolated, Gregory said.
That includes visits from biological parents, which have been suspended and replaced by video calls. It’s a tough loss for children who often feel their parents abandoned them and crave reassurance that they will be reunited.
Mindful that children are also missing their school friends, keeping them busy and entertained has also become a priority, Gregory said. On one recent afternoon, that was a game of tug of war pitting kids against staff.
“We’re on the alert to cabin fever,” Gregory said. “We’re being creative in doing afternoon activities and switching things up to keep kids busy.”
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