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Posted Wednesday, April 29, 2020 by Team Northwoods

Navigating the New Normal (Q&A with Child Welfare Evangelist Rich Bowlen)

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It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic will impact child welfare for years to come. We asked our child welfare evangelist, Rich Bowlen, to share his insight on how agencies are adapting, what this means for child welfare in the future, and how to weather the long-term aftereffects of the storm.


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Rich Bowlen on the new normal for child welfareHow does shifting to a remote workforce impact child welfare?

Over the past few years, many child welfare agencies have taken advantage of opportunities to support the mobile nature of their caseworkers as they deliver critical services to families and children. In fact, we’ve seen agencies convert space into shared docking stations or establish areas for hoteling. Some have even established satellite offices.

While these changes provided several conveniences to caseworkers as they continued to come and go from the office, they do little to truly empower a remote workforce. This old way of doing things has been completely disrupted and today we have the ability to create what the new normal will be.

Now, remote work is truly remote. Seemingly overnight, our caseworkers and supporting staff were not only displaced from their offices and coworkers, but also from how they were used to conducting business. Everything changed, whether it was how they connect with providers or supports that they often leaned on to help assure safety for vulnerable children …  to how they could find those extra, precious seconds or minutes to have just a little more face-to-face time with caregivers and families.

When I worked on the frontlines in child welfare, we always viewed the office as our sanctuary. After spending the day in court, or making multiple home or school visits, and listening to the constant demand by others on just how they “suggest” you do things, it was incredibly comforting to be in the midst of others who knew exactly what you were experiencing without having to ask. The only time where you felt like you got a lot of support or affirmation for what you were doing everyday was by going back to the office and seeing your teammates, colleagues, and supervisor—the people out there fighting the good fight with you.

That’s one of the biggest things missing right now. Workers aren’t just displaced from the office, but all the support that comes with it. That said, there’s good news: not only is that support still very possible, I believe we can make it even more meaningful.

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What are some of the big changes we’re hearing about from agencies in how they engage families and coordinate services?

Many of the foundational elements of child welfare aren’t going to change. There’s nothing that can take the place of going out and doing home visits or having face-to-face contact with a child or family who’s at significant risk. When a child is in danger, it is very simple—we go.

That said, we are seeing agencies take advantage of things like virtual meetings, virtual visits, telehealth, and telemedicine. Additionally, agencies have been able to do much deeper dives into existing case history prior to rushing out or in anticipation of collaborating with law enforcement or medical professionals. Since these types of capabilities are proving beneficial, some agencies have already started restructuring or reallocating resources in order to make this part of their new way.

It’s exciting to see agencies innovating in ways they’ve always wanted to, but maybe were afraid to try in the past. This has created the opportunity for them to try some cool things out.

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Rich Bowlen on promoting well-being in a state of crisisWhat changes will ideally become
the “new normal?” 

In this current environment, everyone is relying more on their partners and other key stakeholders across the whole child welfare ecosystem. We’re seeing caregivers and providers become more directly engaged with birth families and parents, and I hope that continues.

There’s an opportunity to move beyond the worker serving as the intermediary that’s facilitating everything, and instead simply connect everyone in the child’s circle. In a state of crisis or not, the goal is that all the people who are invested in protecting and caring for a child can safely work together to promote the overall well-being of that child. Even before the pandemic, the thought has always been that we are all in this together.

Some of the other things we’re seeing around supervised visitation, increased video conferences, and increased communication will hopefully become the norm too. Just because you have visitation once or twice a week, that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with alternative ways to keep people connected beyond what the service plan or court order indicates.

It’s incredibly encouraging to see the apps and solutions being accessed to assure children that the support system that was being built for them is still there, still very much connected, and still caring even more.

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What changes will have the most significant long-term impact?

Every one of us is constantly looking for more time, but what we really want is the ability to apply as much professional focus on the high-value activities as we can.

If we can virtually facilitate team meetings, staffings, supervision, or some of the other more routine activities, workers can repurpose the time they used to spend constantly preparing for those meetings or traveling to and from various offices to have them in person.

That means more time to dive deeper into a child’s history, find additional ways for people to connect, and really analyze how things are going, even within just the past week. Workers can use that rich understanding of a child’s story to be much more tuned in to the here and now and be able to make decisions as things happen rather than having to wait for a monthly review.

Being able to share information a bit more openly will also be huge. For a long time, we’ve been overly cautious about sharing information, often because we just weren’t sure what was or wasn’t allowed.

Now, open lines of communication are how we not only keep others informed but gain the ability to truly understand and appreciate what is going on all around us. Things are happening quickly and there’s really no other way to respond but by sharing information. I think being more transparent where we have the ability to do so responsibly and safely is going to have the greatest potential to help children and families continue to move forward.

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Rich Bowlen on investing in each other's programsWhat’s one of the most important things agencies have learned through operating in crisis mode that will continue to help them in the future? 

The agencies most likely to be successful during times of crisis are the ones who have always focused on building partnerships and developing a community sense of ownership and responsibility over the health and well-being of those most vulnerable. Investing in each other’s programs and efforts during normal times makes a huge difference when a crisis hits.

A crisis is just that, a crisis, because you can’t see it coming. You can’t fully prepare for exactly how or to what degree it will impact you. But if you have those relationships, you can band together and support each other through the inevitable tough times.

While today’s challenge is surreal, it is how we respond that matters.

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Can you talk about some of the ways Northwoods is evolving to support agencies through this time?

As soon as the pandemic started to unfold, we immediately got in touch with the people on the front lines to ask: what are you anticipating? What are you experiencing? How are you coping? Is there anything we could do to help? We obviously wanted to reassure agencies there are people who care about the situation they’re in, but we also wanted to fully appreciate their experiences to determine if there was anything at all we could do to simply help out.

One example: as agencies were thrust into their new reality of remote work, we knew that workers were feeling isolated and lacking the IT and coaching support they’d usually receive in the office. So, our services and technical communications teams quickly put together a series of videos and other training materials so workers could still get the help they needed and hopefully feel a bit less disconnected. 

We’re also continually creating and providing resources regarding how to manage remote teams. While this concept was something familiar to other industries, there are a number of considerations and complexities to helping a child welfare organization operate in a complete remote fashion that haven’t really been explored or addressed before.

It’s been all hands on deck. Everyone continues to pitch in—regardless of their job role or level of seniority—to decide what to do next and connect the dots for our customers.

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What’s the one thing all technology providers should be doing to help our child welfare partners navigate during this time?

Too many technologists assume to know what child welfare needs without having a true appreciation for what is happening and why it’s so important. Remember that the real help needed is beyond the surface of what you see.

Consider a child who’s only allowed an occasional visit with his or her mother. Many times, the one thing that gets both the child and mom through the day is that opportunity to soak up every second they have together. Now because of social distancing measures, they have to rely on FaceTime instead. The child is less engaged. There’s no hug hello or goodbye. These are highly emotional situations that don’t stop when the visit ends, but there’s little to no comfort or intervention while everyone is isolated and even supportive services are limited. So, both mom and her child just endure.

We all have to view technology through this lens. If you think child welfare social workers and agencies are struggling to adjust to this new world, imagine what the families they serve must be feeling. That understanding has to drive everything we’re doing. There are millions of apps. Thousands of technical solutions. But how many truly understand what is at the heart of each one of these interactions?

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What would you say to frontline workers right now to boost their spirits?

My heart cannot express how proud and appreciative I am of your dedication to serve on the frontlines. You’ve always represented the voice of the unheard, the face of the unseen, and the hope for those who fear everyone has given up on them.

In this time of distancing, isolation, and anxiety, you have risen to the occasion. Our country, communities, families, and most importantly, our kids thank you for continuing to answer the call.

Remember that to be at your best for others, you have to take good care of yourself and your teammates as well. Stay connected and check in on each other often. Don’t wait until someone asks for help to reach out. Do it just because.

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Rich Bowlen on taking care of frontline child welfare workersAnything else you want to say while you’ve got the mic?

Many people outside of child welfare see what’s happening to vulnerable kids and families without realizing how their situation is affecting the social workers fighting behind the scenes on their behalf … emotionally distraught, mentally drained, and overcome with concern and heartbreak. These frontline workers face real tragedy and trauma every day, and they need our support now more than ever. Provide a listening ear and understanding heart. Let’s take care of them so they can take care of others.

This new world we’ve all been forced into is about finding new ways to be brave, be bold, and take action. We can’t wait for policies that mandate prescriptive, cookie-cutter rules to be developed or vetted to suggest what we need to do or how we need to do it. Our communities can’t wait, our agencies and workers can’t wait, and most assuredly, our children can’t wait.

If we simply do what is right and treat others the way we ourselves would wish to be treated, then we will be doing the most good. That’s when incredibly positive things will happen for our children.

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