In the face of COVID-19, child protection workers – like first responders everywhere – continue to care for children without proper personal protection equipment. While Colorado’s human service agencies and others throughout the country are trying to piecemeal a solution to protect their employees, there is simply not enough to ensure the safety of these workers as they respond to emergencies and do their job to keep children and families safe. It is imperative that we protect child protection workers and equip them with personal protective equipment if we want them to protect the most vulnerable among us – our children.
Every day, unthinkable things happen to children. County human service departments respond to 40,000 reports of possible child abuse or neglect throughout Colorado each year. Roughly 100 times a day, child protection workers serve as first responders to these reports, typically by entering families’ homes they are not familiar with.
Their assessments are intimate. To ensure a child’s safety and well-being, a child protection worker may look to see if there’s enough food in the pantry, check to make sure the child is sleeping in a safe space, and observe the child themselves for any indication of physical abuse. Workers often encounter families who are trying to make positive changes in their lives, but they also encounter those who pose a safety risk. Despite these dangers, child protection workers continue to enter these homes every day.
Colorado has designated child protection workers as “critical” employees to preserving the welfare of our citizens during the threat of COVID-19. Workers are required to respond – in person – to new reports of abuse or neglect needing assessment. Additionally, they are also required – under federal law and state regulations – to visit all children in foster care placement every 30 days. In rare circumstances, involving serious medical situations, workers are permitted to use video technology to connect with foster children. To be clear, this is a narrow exception and there are few cases that currently qualify. In short, child protection workers continue to complete in-person visits with children in foster care and provide services vital for protecting children – especially young, nonverbal children.
Presently, throughout Colorado, many county human services departments work without the equipment necessary to protect themselves. These departments are working tirelessly to locate equipment for their staff with little result, and there is always a need for more. Child protection workers are being creative in their efforts to try to protect themselves during home visits.
Some are wearing face masks fashioned out of vacuum cleaner bags. Others are working with local distilleries that have shifted from the production of liquor to that of hand sanitizer to ensure they are able to practice proper hand hygiene. These efforts have been needed because the state is lacking supplies, and the limited supplies coming into the state are being prioritized to other workers.
This outbreak has revealed that our first responders wear many capes. We are indebted to medical professionals and law enforcement who are working tirelessly to serve our state. But we’ve also learned that first responders work in grocery stores, drive delivery trucks and respond to reports of child abuse and neglect. Supplies might be scarce, but we must not forget child protection workers when prioritizing the distribution of supplies. The interactions that child protection workers have with families and children not only have ramifications on the safety, well-being, and permanency of children, but they also have the potential to affect many throughout Colorado if they contract and pass along COVID-19.
By designating our child protection workers as “critical” employees, the state has recognized their vital role in maintaining the safety and welfare of Colorado’s children. In order for child protection workers to safely fulfill this duty, we must ensure that they are prioritized as first responders and provide them with the equipment they need to protect themselves, so they can protect our children.
Stephanie Villafuerte is the child protection ombudsman for the State of Colorado.