Understanding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on families involved in the child welfare system: Technological capital and pandemic practice – Conrad – 2022 – Child & Family Social Work

4.1 Pandemic practice

We USE the phrase ‘pandemic practice’ to name the child-welfare procedures that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. As casework rapidly shifted from FtF to remote delivery through ICTs, pandemic practice fundamentally changed what it meant to interact with, and within, CPS. We organize our findings around two central components of the child-welfare system: court and direct service provision and family monitoring. First, we describe the function of these components within the state agency. Then, we describe pandemic practice, juxtaposing it with pre-pandemic practice. Finally, we describe the impact that pandemic practice had on children and families.

4.2 Court

Courts serve an important role in the child-welfare system in support of the safety, permanency and well-being of children and their families. Court involvement can extend across many years, for example, in the most severe cases of child maltreatment. Court involvement can include day-to-day oversight, for example, approval of out-of-state travel with foster parents. Finally, courts become the arbitrator in permanently terminating the caregiver/child relationship when children cannot safely return to their family of origin. Courts operate independently from CPS agencies and are often responsible for ensuring that caregivers receive due process, while simultaneously providing a check and balance on CPS decision making and authority.

4.2.1 Virtual court

In March 2020, court hearings for child-welfare cases in our participants’ jurisdiction went from a primarily in-person to a completely remote format. From March 2020 to present, all CPS court hearings, from petitions for emergency removal to adoption finalizations, were, and still are, facilitated through videoconferencing (e.g. Skype and Zoom). Additionally, the physical courtrooms were, and are, closed to both the public and court staff.

Remote appearance in court is not unprecedented. Individuals are entitled to ‘appear’ in court on matters involving children to whom they have a legal right (e.g. incarcerated parents participated remotely before COVID-19). During pandemic practice, all relevant parties attended using ICTs, including but not limited to judges, lawyers, CPS caseworkers, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), guardian ad litem, families of origin and caregivers. As explained by Supervisors 4 and 3 respectively, ‘… judges were conducting court from their kitchen table’, ‘Nobody was in the same place, parents and their attorneys weren’t even together’. Supervisor 5 added that by late summer 2020 ‘… parents would appear through their attorney … they would call their attorney and be on the phone with them, who in turn appeared through Zoom’. In mid-May 2021, we contacted participants and confirmed that virtual CPS court hearings persist, with the exception of termination hearings.

4.2.2 Impact on children and families

Our participants described three primary ways that the transition from in-person to virtual court affected case progression: showing up, technicalities and timely progression.

Showing up at court hearings is mandatory for parents involved in the CPS system. Our interviewees described several ways that people ‘showed up’ for court differently during pandemic practice. Although some of the ways that showing up for virtual court were benign (e.g. from the kitchen table), others appeared more malignant. For example, several interviewees described how courts entered default judgments against parents who failed to appear in virtual court. For example, Supervisor 2 described how the change from in-person to virtual court affected parents’ engagement and involvement with court hearings: ‘Parents had to have emergency removal hearings on Zoom, sitting outside of McDonalds. We had other parents who missed their termination [of parental rights] hearings … Their rights were terminated because they were a no-show for their Zoom hearing’.

Second, during pandemic practice, supervisors described atypical case progression, attributing these disruptions to technicalities. For example, some interviewees described how virtual court disrupted permanency for children in foster care. Supervisor 4 describes a specific instance that occurred early in the move to virtual court:

courts were still trying to figure out how to do Zoom court … somewhere along the way, someone missed something … an important document, an important filing deadline, something that would not have been an issue in person, but the court had to overturn a finalized adoption to correct the error. I don’t know exactly what happened, legally speaking, but it caused a lot anxiety for the kiddos and their adoptive parents. Whatever happened, it was fixed fairly quickly, but still … it wasn’t a good situation.

Finally, remote court delayed the timely progression of caregivers’ cases through the system. For example, federally mandated timelines dictate case progression for children in foster care (e.g. 15/22 provision of the Adoption and Safe Families Act [ASFA]). Prior to March 2020, case progression in our interviewee’s jurisdiction was predictable and timely. This all changed during pandemic practice. ‘We are blowing our ASFA requirements for our kiddos in [foster] care’ (Supervisor 1). CPS agencies enacting pandemic practice were unable to meet families’ service needs, resulting in extra time in placement for children.

4.3 Direct service provision and family monitoring

Courts often mandate direct services (e.g. assessment and treatment) at the recommendation of CPS to ensure the safety, permanency and well-being of children. Case managers monitor adherence to these recommendations (family monitoring). Prior to the onset of the pandemic, a majority of direct services and their monitoring occurred through FtF interactions. These elements of casework are deeply interwoven, making it difficult to disentangle individual threads of each without destroying the entire tapestry of case practice. Thus, we describe them together.

Case-management includes coordinating care, monitoring treatment services, assessing safety and risk, advocating for children and families, and case planning. Additionally, caseworkers must maintain contact with all household members within strict month statutory requirements for in-person, FtF contact. The number of required FtF monthly visits, known as monthly visitation requirements (MVR), is based on an assessment of risk factors in the home. Caseworkers visit low-risk homes approximately once a month and high-risk homes three to four times a month. Finally, CPS agencies also rely on information from collateral contacts (e.g. police), and treatment progress reports from direct service providers to monitor the safety, permanency and well-being of children and their families.

Case documentation is a primary task in CPS casework. CPS provides individual desktop computers, email addresses and basic cellular phones to all caseworkers and supervisors in our participants’ jurisdiction to facilitate case monitoring. Caseworkers interface with case-management software, State Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS), to document all information pertaining to every CPS case. SACWIS are federally-funded case management tools used by CPS agencies to organize case practice reporting. Direct service and monitoring during pandemic practice included absence of services, superficial services and adequacy of remote monitoring.

4.3.1 Remote delivery and monitoring

Absence of services was a defining characteristic of early-stage pandemic practice. For example, Supervisor 1 observed, ‘Everything shut down … a lot of our providers closed because they weren’t sure if they were going to get paid because Medicaid did not reimburse for remote services’. Other interviewees described services that were, and still are, unavailable because of the physical limitations of virtual delivery, or privacy regulations. Supervisor 2 explained:

Substance abuse evaluations, there is no way that they can be done remotely … not since those evaluations require a drug screen [biological specimen]. The SAEs [substance abuse evaluators] could make contact with our parents and interview them on the phone, but the drug screens are central for making an evaluation and recommendations.

She added, ‘psych[ological] evals have stopped completely. Our providers will not do them over the phone or Zoom because of HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] stuff’.

Second, during pandemic practice, interviewees described how families received superficial services. For example, Supervisor 5 described how some families were linked with services based not on the family’s needs but rather on the assumption that any service was better than no service. Supervisor 3 rhetorically asked, ‘How can [intensive in-home treatment] possibly service a family through Zoom? Especially families with infants in the home?’ Other interviewees echoed the perception that remote delivery could not substitute for FtF interactions. Supervisor 1 recalled,

Basically between March and July we weren’t doing in-person parent–child visits or sibling visits … we tried phone calls or Zoom visits, but it’s not the same. Kids need that physical contact with their parents to maintain their emotional connection with their parents while in placement. Parents need that physical contact with their children to maintain their hope … hope for reunification.

Finally, pandemic practice challenged the adequacy of remote monitoring. Our interviewees described how caseworkers were not able to adequately assess risk and safety within the circumstances created by the pandemic. Our participants described this pandemic practice (e.g. monthly child and family contacts were being completed through videoconferencing software, or via phone) and how it negatively affected casework. Supervisor 5 discussed an investigation that was conducted through a ring doorbell, ‘since we couldn’t do interviews face to face, we had no idea if there was someone in the background telling the kids what to say’. One supervisor described how one mother was able to avoid CPS monitoring by ‘intentionally’ not participating through a technological platform. Interviewees noted the limitations that digital interactions have on overall case monitoring. Other interviewees expressed frustration with the inability to obtain collateral contacts from providers, further complicating their overall ability to monitor a family during the pandemic.

4.3.2 Impact on children and families

Our participants detailed two ways that remote delivery and monitoring affected case practice: case damage and reimagined case practice.

Remote service delivery and monitoring, pandemic practice, resulted in case damage. Our participants described case damage through stories that highlighted the negative case outcomes families experienced. For example, the agency was unable to support families that required intensive intervention services in ways that kept children safe in their homes during the wide scale closures of service providers. Supervisor 1 recalled:

Just before Corona hit, we had a family that we had serious concerns for. We did a safety plan, put in FPS [family preservation services; intensive in-home family treatment] … they [caseworkers] were going out daily to work with the family, doing whatever they could to keep the kids safely in the home. And then, just like that, everything collapsed. FPS couldn’t go out anymore … the family had no way of getting services … the family lasted maybe two days, and then we were out there again [the families house]. At that point there was nothing else we could do, we had to do a removal.

Unfortunately, experiences where service absence and inadequacy ultimately required the removal of the children from their caregivers were not isolated. Supervisor 3 shared a similar experience,

We had a mom that was maybe a month away from completing her drug treatment program. She made amazing progress between the time she lost her children up to when COVID hit, and then everything closed. Her case just stopped, she couldn’t complete her programming, visits with her children stopped. All the closures just stacked more barriers for reunification on top of her.

The stories our interviewees told highlight the ways in which service disruptions caused by the pandemic impacted the safety and permanency goals of some families in the child-welfare system.

Finally, our participants described reimagined case practice. Our interviewees expressed optimism that pandemic practice would create opportunities for workers to refine or learn new social-work skills. For instance, when asked to think about how long-term case practice might change, Supervisor 3 stated, ‘[caseworkers] would have to get back to their social work roots, they have to find new ways to work with and engage families’. Supervisor 4 provided similar insights, saying ‘my workers have had to rethink how they approach families from a strengths-based approach, we have to help clients build their formal and informal supports, guide them to find ways to lean on their families for help’.

4.4 Technological capital in pandemic practice

In the second layer of analysis, we use technological capital and UTAUT as sensitizing frames to interpret and re-interpret our participants’ stories and our findings.

4.4.1 Awareness

Carlson and Issacs (2018) conceptualize awareness as a process by which an individual identifies and seeks information about a technological innovation and evaluate the perceived benefit of adoption (see experience and performance expectancy in UTAUT). When asked about awareness, our interviewees conjectured that most professionals involved with the child-welfare system possessed a baseline awareness of ICTs and the potential benefits of their use in case practice. Supervisor 2 noted, ‘I think that all of the professionals … the service providers, the court staff … they all know what different technology is available, how it can help’.

Our interviewees were less confident in their appraisal of clients’ awareness. Supervisor 1 said, ‘I think probably most of our parents know about different technology, they probably know how to video chat. They might not use what we were trying to use …. yeah like Zoom, but they know about things like Facetime or Skype’. Some of our interviewees attributed lack of awareness to demographics. Supervisor 5, for example, echoed the others’ impressions related to awareness but added, ‘I would say though, that some of our older foster parents probably are not as aware about technology. I know we had a few older foster parents that didn’t know what Zoom was’.

4.4.2 Knowledge

Carlson and Issacs (2018) describe knowledge as the information required to use an innovation for its intended purpose. Other frameworks describe this phenomenon as experience (e.g. UTAUT, Venkatesh et al., 2003) or technology literacy (Glowacki et al., 2021). Regardless of the naming conventions, this concept is central to functioning within a technological system, and CPS was no exception. In particular, supervisors described how insufficient knowledge manifested as a barrier to adequate case-management. Insufficient knowledge affected the broader CPS ecosystem through two primary routes: professional and client.

Pandemic practice related to the existing case-management software serves as an excellent example of how insufficient knowledge contributed to case-management disruptions. For instance, supervisors lacked direct knowledge of certain functions within the SACWIS that they needed to function during pandemic practice. Prior to March 2020, CPS clerical and administrative staff were responsible for approving and generating most case-management documents. As a part of pandemic practice, these responsibilities shifted to supervisors and frontline workers, who only had fragmented knowledge. Supervisor 4 noted these challenges and the resulting impact on casework:

Once everything shut down, we [supervisors] were responsible for generating a bunch of different financial and legal approvals, which were usually the responsibility of clerical staff. I’ve seen them do it before, but I had no idea what I was doing. Early in the process we had foster parents that weren’t getting their initial clothing checks [used to purchase clothing for foster children] and Medicaid [health insurance] cards for weeks because us supervisors had no idea what to do.

Clients lacked the knowledge necessary to use ICTs during pandemic practice. Supervisors explained how clients’ lack of knowledge hindered CPS workers’ ability to perform basic case-management practices, including CA/N investigations.

4.4.3 Access

When considering access to ICTs, a technological capital framework considers factors such as cost, penetration, location and barriers to access (Carlson & Isaacs, 2018). Supervisors identified how ICT access created barriers for clients to participate in remote environments. For example, some families did not possess the ICT ‘hardware’ or device that serves as an entry point to interaction, such as a computer. Outdated technology also created access barriers during pandemic practice, as Supervisor 3 notes, ‘most of the time if they do have a smartphone they are so out of date that is really difficult for them to do anything other than text. Forget video chatting’. Additionally, Supervisor 2 adds:

A lot of our parents don’t have internet at home. Most of our parents use their smartphones to access the internet, or some other public access location. A lot of our parents use pre-paid phones and can only access the internet through wifi.

Thus, our analysis reveals how the nuanced intersection of access manifests in a bureaucratic system. That is, even as one element of technological capital was provided, others continued to suppress case-management. For example, Supervisor 4 noted, ‘We were able to purchase the family an iPad so they could continue services, but the State [policy] would not allow us to get the family internet service, or a hotspot to use with the iPad’.

Insufficient technological capital in terms of access created situations that threatened clients’ privacy and subjected them to stigma. For example, Supervisor 2 explained how the dependency on public internet access created situations that forced parents to participate in removal hearings in public settings (via zoom). Putting this private, emotional experience on public display is unfair.

Similar to knowledge, insufficient access affected CPS workers as well as clients. Supervisor 2 stated, ‘I was surprised to find out that a few of my investigators did not have a home computer or internet’. Again, systems attempted, and failed, to provide the necessary technological capital. Participant 5 explained that all of the after-hour and on-call investigators ‘were issued laptops so they could do their work … the State said everyone would get laptops, but that never happened’. CPS workers’ insufficient technological capital manifested in terms of both hardware and software and further complicated casework. Supervisor 1 explained, ‘workers that used their own computers at home had to download [SACWIS] onto their computer. Since workers were now working from home, they took administrative rights away within [SACWIS] for certain functions for workers. Now, supervisors were the only ones that could do a background check, it slowed everything way down’.

4.4.4 Social network capacity and influence

An individual’s social network affects their use, adoption, and perceived benefit of a technology (Carlson & Isaacs, 2018). Most existing technology-adoption theory articulates how friends and family members’ technology use and adoption affects individual’s related adoption decisions. For instance, UTAUT purports that individuals adopt a technology because they see members of their social network adopt an innovation. Our interviewees described social network capacity in terms of clients’ interactions with their caseworker rather than within clients’ social networks, and our findings emerge from this previously unexplored context.

In more traditional relational contexts, relational power plays a significant role in a pressured adoption process; those with less relational power accommodate to the technological preferences of those with more power. Social networks may pressure individuals to adopt ICTs for relational maintenance purposes (e.g. adopt Facetime to stay connected with distant family members) described by Magsamen-Conrad et al. (2020) as pressured voluntary adoption. In mandatory adoption contexts (e.g. organizational technology adoption), individuals with less power (employees) accommodate. In both instances, the social network influencing the adoption decision is assumed responsible for providing facilitating conditions for adoption. That is, the entity mandating adoption has the capacity to facilitate adoption.

These norms transformed in context of ICT use in child welfare. Our interviewees described instances where families refused to adopt the preferred ICT of their caseworker. In this sense, CPS caseworker had to accommodate the ICT adoption preference of the family, even though the case worked has more power in this relationship, perhaps because CPS did not have the capacity to facilitate adoption. The disruption of power was further complicated by bureaucratic procedures that are uncommon in personal and organizational adoption scenarios. For instance, Supervisor 1 recalled, ‘One family would only use Whatsapp … we had to get special approval so that the worker could download the app to communicate with the family’.

Social network capacity, access and knowledge intersected with monitoring. Our interviewees believed that families sometimes used their insufficient technological capital strategically, exploiting pandemic practice to undermine monitoring. Supervisor 4 observed,

One family only had an Obama phone … the mom was not about to give us her phone number so we could follow up with her later … she refused to use any form of technology so that we could keep in touch with her, we always had to go back through messaging her mother if we needed her.

Supervisor 4 expanded by suggesting that the mother could have adopted a variety of ICT platforms to make the communication process easier but instead asserted her own autonomy in the case-management process by not adopting a different ICT. Supervisor 4 concluded, ‘… it’s not uncommon for parents to make it difficult to monitor them, but it’s become easier now that everything is done remotely’.

Finally, social network capacity was apparent in the agency–employee relationship but dysfunctional. For instance, Supervisor 3 stated,

It came direct from the Commissioner that if you were not willing to come to the office to work, or you did not take your computer home to work, or you did not go get your own computer and internet to work from home, it was time to look for a new job. The Commissioner was tired of hearing excuses about not having a computer to do your job.

CPS workers were unable to rely on the agency’s capacity. Supervisor 2 summarized that, ‘eventually that workers had to go buy a computer and get internet installed so they could get back to work’. When this phenomenon is described in organizational research in UTAUT, it is the organization that requires the adoption and provides the ICT. During pandemic practice, child-welfare workers were expected to use their own personal capital to satisfy the demands of their organization.

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