SARASOTA, FL – Even without a worldwide pandemic, the abuse or neglect of a child can be difficult to detect. But in the age of COVID-19, the “hidden pandemic” of child mistreatment becomes even more challenging to identify and address. And for children awaiting adoption, the process can become more unwieldy as court cases have been pushed back and in-person meetings more difficult to facilitate.
Through the pandemic, local nonprofit organization Safe Children Coalition has forged doggedly ahead to make sure they are there for children in emergency situations, and that eager families can be introduced to the child or children they hope to call their own. Even as the approximately 300 staff members – social workers, case managers, therapists and more – had to worry about their own health and safety, their mission has remained to protect children, strengthen families, and build community.
“Pre-pandemic, our social service model was built on the foundation of face-to-face contact with families in crisis,” said Brena Slater, president and CEO of Safe Children Coalition. “With the onset of COVID-19, we had to quickly retool our systems to be able to provide virtual and blended services. Within a week, we had the right technology in place to enable our staff – many of whom put caring for our families above their own well-being – to continue providing crucial, life-saving services during this critical time.”
The isolation caused due to the stay-at-home order, the closing of in-person school last spring, and continued reduced social opportunities have created a dangerous situation for already at-risk children. Teachers, school counselors and child welfare professionals have fewer – or no – opportunities to check on children; parents with issues in the home could use the excuse that they were quarantining to keep field professionals away.
Additionally, with other programs and services unavailable, field staff had to take on increased levels of counseling, drug screens, and assessing children at a much higher level to ensure they were safe and being provided for.
“It absolutely ratcheted up the anxiety level for staff – we were asking them to act in a capacity they were not used to acting in,” said Stacey Shaeffer, senior director of prevention and diversion. “But the safety of children was on the line – we had to work a lot harder during these times!”
Dave Luebcke, senior director of programs, notes that – while the team had to adapt to virtual means to accomplish some of its work – the pandemic did not slow down the crucial work that needed to be done to facilitate adoptions.
“We found ways to keep cases moving and to provide permanency to our children and families,” Luebcke said. “There is a sense of accomplishment when you adapt and overcome adversity. In my 20-plus years in the field of child welfare, I have never seen an event have such an impact on our system of care, but I am proud of our team and our families. We pulled together, found work-arounds, and kept our mission of keeping families safe moving forward.”
Luebcke says that, while COVID-19 did limit some degree of in-person contact, the introduction of virtual contact has added an element of flexibility and that participation by parents and caregivers in some programs has actually increased.
For Bonnie Gauspohl, senior vice president of human resources/risk management, the immediate and ongoing concern was to keep staff safe and support them as they worked in unprecedented conditions.
“Initially, it was difficult trying to equip field staff with the right Personal Protective Equipment [PPE],” Gauspohl said. “We had so many people volunteer to give us those things, and the state provided us with PPE as well. We managed to get the staff protected so that they could do their work.”
She notes that, initially, face-to-face visits were curtailed for a time until the PPE situation was under control and the team adjusted to the work method – including working from home and adopting virtual means of communication.
“But it was pretty much amazing,” Gauspohl said. “It’s been hard not to be together and have the support of your team, but everyone has been very professional and managed very well.”
Safe Children Coalition understands that children and families in crisis require supports beyond their immediate families to provide resources they need to have a chance at a healthy, happy life. By providing needed programs and services, such as adoption and foster care, youth prevention and diversion services, Adventure Club (after school care), HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters), Achievers (for middle and high school students), a Youth Shelter, Schoolhouse Link and more, the organization serves as a much-needed safety net for thousands of children and families throughout the community. For more information, go to sccfl.org.
About Safe Children Coalition, Inc.
Safe Children Coalition, Inc. (SCC) serves as the lead agency for community-based care for Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. SCC is a collaboration between local community agencies who provide services to children and families in need. SCC is committed to protecting children, strengthening families, and building community. The core functions provided by SCC include child welfare case management, foster care, adoption, independent living, prevention, diversion, quality management, and support services. Visit sccfl.org or call 941-371-4799.