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First Responders Without a Uniform: Children’s Services of Roxbury Staff Share Their Stories

To the world, first responders are commonly identified as firefighters, police officers, paramedics and medical emergency workers. Their jobs are dedicated to supporting and protecting those in vulnerable, emergency situations. They selflessly put others first in their line of work. In the human services world, first responders wear everyday clothes and drive unmarked vehicles, but they too dedicate their work to supporting and protecting individuals in vulnerable, emergency situations, selflessly putting the needs of the children and families they serve first. Children’s Services of Roxbury (CSR) first responders share stories on their duty to protect and serve families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexandra.N | Intensive Foster Care Supervisor (Northampton Office)
It has been a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are managing. The families we serve have been very understanding; we work as a team to support each other. One of our foster parent’s family members died from COVID-19 and it was devastating…READ MORE…

I wanted to do more to be there for the family, but I simply couldn’t because we were all quarantined. As human beings we’re social people, so the inability have social contact, especially during a moment of grieve for a family I know personally is a challenge. Technology is awesome, but it’s not the same. In person interactions are essential.

Another interested impact from working remote during this time is that there is no such thing as a lunch break. If I’m having lunch there’s no one to cover for me, so if my phone is ringing, I must stop and answer. Due to the pandemic there’s a shortage of staff at other businesses, so I can’t afford to miss a call that pertains to the foster children’s well-being. To not answer a call because I’m eating could be a missed opportunity for the advocacy I want to secure for our foster families.  

It’s important for families to know that even though our offices are closed, we are not closed. My team and I continue to support our foster parents with keeping the children in their care engaged. We’ve also been celebrating birthdays with virtual parties. The increased communication during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased use of technology has been especially beneficial for communicating with the foster children, they love interacting on mobile devices.

Briseida.Q | IFC Child Specific Worker (Tewksbury Office)
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the foster children I work with were already in dire stress; they were already having a difficult time. It’s hard to truly know what they are going through unless we’ve experienced foster care ourselves. How can someone truly know what it’s like to live in a stranger’s home, eat whatever they prepare even if it’s not the food that you’re culturally used to, and live each day knowing there’s a possibility you may never go back to your biological family. When you think of it, it’s a very tough situation…READ MORE…

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the children are stuck at home; they’re isolated. For many children social life and their sense of comfort is school, so having school and even the Boys & Girls Club taken away due to the pandemic took a toll on them.

One of the major issues I faced was foster parents expressing concerns that the children in their care were going to sleep at late hours, as late as 5:00 a.m. When I spoke to the children, they admitted to having trouble sleeping and explained that their minds were racing which kept them up all night.

I thought to myself, how can I tell them how to solve such a problem when I too am having trouble sleeping, when my mind is also racing with thoughts of everything that’s going on, when I am also afraid of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My response was to simply empathize with them and admit to them that I am also experiencing similar thoughts and feelings. One must show that one is vulnerable too. I found it important for them to see that I’m a human too, not just a social worker. Social workers are and do a lot of good things, but to the children we serve, at times we are seen as the enemy, the enforcer, the disciplinarian, so leveling with the children I serve became essential.

One of the children on my case load shared with me that she’s depressed. I tried to get her to explain what she meant by depressed and she sent me a song to listen to, the song “Help Me” by Or3o. It was her way of expressing what she couldn’t articulate.

At that point I realized my approach to phone/virtual check-ins had to be more than asking standard questions. Since working remote during the pandemic, our team in the Tewksbury office started off doing check-ins with families three times a week. That became overbearing for the children and the foster parents, so we adjusted to once a week. Typically, check-ins are to ask questions that ensure the children’s health and safety; are they eating, showering, following house rules, practicing social distancing and so on, but I switched my approach.

I ended up engaging in small talk. I also began wearing wigs. The wigs caught their attention because believe it or not, many children haven’t been willing to engage in video calls. I assumed children would embrace video conversations, but many of them despise it. Most of the time they position the camera on their mobile devices to point at the ceiling or a lamp and would only show me a quick glimpse of their face. Wearing various wigs allowed me to keep them interested, entertained and engaged on the video chat.

I would make jokes and say, “what do you think about my new wig,” or say, “I’m practicing to become a Hollywood actress.” When I didn’t wear a wig, they missed it and asked me why I wasn’t wearing it. I noticed the other day that my sister has a crown, so in the weeks ahead I may get dressed as a queen and probably get some fake lashes, wear the crown, and tell them I was so successful with my wigs that now I have a job as a queen.

More than anything I try to make the children on my case load enjoy the conversation while we’re conversing, and in-between our casual talks I slide in the real questions that pertain to their well-being, the questions they consider to be boring, the questions that are the true purpose of my call.

Such strategies are good for me because I want the phone calls to be instrumental and I want to be sure that I’m getting the information and answers to questions because I still have to write my narratives; I still have to note specifics on everything going on in the home. 

It is also challenging when I take on the brunt of a child being upset. For example, when I advise the foster parents to enforce carving out time to do schoolwork, it may upset the children in their care, so I tell the foster parents to say that I’m the one who said the schoolwork has to be done. I rather the child be upset with me than their foster parents because I don’t want the child’s anger projected on the foster parent, the person that is with them, quarantined under a shared roof. It’s better they have a nicer relationship with the foster parent, so I don’t mind taking on the blunt of the anger. It’s tough because even I want to be liked, everyone wants to be liked, but it’s the sacrifice I make because I understand the importance why I’m doing it.

As the weather gets better, my plan is to encourage foster parents to buy tomato plants and have a fun competition with the children to see whose plant grows the most tomatoes. There are only so many movies a person can watch, so encouraging hobbies, engaging activities and simple things to do in the backyard will be important as we all continue to navigate staying healthy during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Carline.L | H&S Program Manager (Roxbury Office)
When the pandemic first broke, I appreciated the slowdown in society. It was as though the world stopped. However, when news reports revealed how COVID-19 was claiming the lives of so many, I realized how serious it was. I had to program myself to limit my news intake because it became overwhelming; that was my way to protect my mental peace and prevent stress and anxiety…READ MORE…

I also listened to a lot of gospel music which brought me a peace of mind. I realized that if I was not at peace during this crisis, if I didn’t pour positivity into myself, I would not be able to support the families we serve. I couldn’t let the fear brought on by COVID-19 consume me. The families we serve look to us for encouragement, so if I showed fear, they too would be fearful.

One of the families in shelter was a single mother of four who tested positive for COVID-19 and became critically ill. Each day as she fought to recover, I was emotionally stressed and praying for her recovery, yet in fear of the worst possible outcome. Regardless of how I felt, I had to show her strength and encouragement. Thankfully she recovered.

It’s not only the families who experienced challenges during these times. One of my staff had a family member who passed away from COVID-19 and she suffered with severe anxiety in fear that she may test positive.

When my staff wasn’t mentally available to support the families we serve due to their personal struggles with the pandemic, I stepped in and reached out to the families on their case load. I had to understand that during this crisis, it’s about connecting. I gave support to families until my staff who struggled during this challenging time were able.

We serve a lot of people with mental illness. For those who didn’t previously struggle with mental illness, this crisis easily brought on depression and sadness. Caregivers suddenly had their children at home all day and were expected to assist with schoolwork. In some cases, children also have mental illness, which parents didn’t have to manage fulltime while children were in school.

To support families, we call them often to make sure everyone in the household is safe and healthy. We provide families with resources and make sure they are staying in contact with their therapists, so a team is always in place to support them. The families are very appreciative when we reach out; they count on our encouragement.

This pandemic taught me a lot and it is still teaching me a lot. I’ve learned that life is all about balance. It’s a continued challenge, but we must keep going regardless of what’s going on.

We placed over 100 homeless families in housing during this pandemic, so even though we’re working remotely, we still do what we need to do. This “new normal” gives me more insight, I put things in better perspective. I’ve come to realize that it’s not only about the families we serve; it’s also about us. If this is the new normal, I’m ready for it.

Christian.R | IFC Child Specific Worker (Northampton Office)
Families and children have been home full-time since February. We’re now in the summer and there’s uncertainty about summer camps and even about when schools will officially reopen, so these factors cause families to be overwhelmed. They need help and support, especially families with children who have emotional or behavioral special needs…READ MORE…

I call foster families two to three times a week. During at least one of those calls, I allow foster parents to simply vent and express their feelings. Working remote has allowed more time for such connections with foster parents. Another positive outcome from working remote during the COVID-19 pandemic is the ability to schedule home visits for one day; I no longer have to factor in travel time. Through a mobile device I can see the home, the child’s room and assess the safety of the child.

Even though cities are reopening, there’s still a real sense of anxiety for some families. To help them cope, I assess where in the community they are going, provide them with the information on safety protocols, such as space occupancy, and make sure they have masks and hand sanitizer. I guide them with supportive steps to safely go outdoors.

Claribel.M | Utilization & Compliance Manager (Worcester Office)
When the COVID-19 pandemic started it was very scary. There was serious panic among the family-based childcare providers as we all struggled to assess the next steps, the safest steps. The providers, families and my team and I all worked together to get through the uncertainty…READ MORE…

I am in a unique position because I provide support for all the families our program serves. Families were concerned about securing their slots with childcare providers and they were worried about not being able to pay the associated fees, so I worked with them to resolve such concerns.

I enjoy supporting families. Life is funny, sometimes you don’t know when you will be on the other side of the hand in need of help, so being able to assist families is extremely important to me.

The families I support are still trying to create a balanced life during these difficult times. I am used to an open-door policy; I find joy in welcoming walk-ins into my office to assist and support them, so that’s something I miss greatly while remotely working. 

Dacia.T | Family Visitation Assistant Director (Roxbury Office)
There are pros and cons to working with family visitation during COVID-19.  Family visitation is an evolving field and we’ve been on the forefront of pushing for virtual visits between families and creating guidelines that will keep our families safe in the cyber world, which may become the new norm…READ MORE…

It’s challenging for parents to jump through hoops to see their child(ren) because of reasons that led to supervised visitations.  During this time, not knowing how their child(ren) is doing has been extremely, emotionally distressing. Working with such caregivers to manage how they can best maintain connection when their concern is high and they literally don’t have another avenue of contact is tough.

For some families, virtual visits will not be in their best interest or safe for them because there is no way to safely allow a virtual visit to take place without compromising the safety of the surviving parent’s location. Therefore, a balanced Family Visitation Program that accommodates both ends of the spectrum is needed in wake of COVID-19. In our program, safety is paramount for our families.

Families in our program who are undocumented immigrants are also impacted during the pandemic. Some of them have lost their jobs or are on furlough. They are unable to apply for unemployment because they do not have a social security number, or they are afraid to apply for assistance because the questions asked may compromise their permanent residence status. These families have no income, no stimulus, no unemployment and no food stamps because of their citizenship status.

It’s been frustrating to see them experience such hardship, but I do my best to support them. I’ve sent them to immigration attorneys, but they too are overloaded during this crisis. I’ve also provided resources, access to food, and I have been increasingly providing referrals for mental health resources.

Grace.B | IFC Child Specific Worker (Roxbury Office)
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, because everyone was dealing with the common stress, it was easy to talk about difficult situations with families; it normalized challenging times since we were all experiencing the impact of the pandemic at the same time…READ MORE…

The children and families have been incredibly resilient. The foster parents continue to be extremely supportive of the children in their care; I am very impressed. Some foster parents expressed that they were excited to be able to spend more time with the children in their care.

One challenge across the board was that given foster children have various support services in place, at times foster parents became overwhelmed with the high volume of phone/video calls from providers.

In those instances, I work with families individually to assess the amount of support they actually need for the children in their care and for themselves, and work with the providers to find a respectable balance of calls that will still provide adequate services, such as combining sessions or reducing the number of sessions.

Hannah.R | BHD Clinician (Roxbury Office)
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic felt very abrupt. I had to quickly adjust and focus on the things that would help support families during this time…READ MORE…

I had to assess who didn’t have Internet, who didn’t have laptops or computers in their homes, who didn’t have personal protective equipment, who was struggling to get access to food and so on. It was a balance of supporting their mental space and their needs.

Strengths are unique to each family and so are challenges. I am constantly developing communication strategies for how to support families based on their unique strengths and challenges.

Before the pandemic, I met with families in the community or visited their homes. I was able to assess a child’s body language or how he or she was orienting themselves in various spaces. Not being able to be in a child’s personal space creates big limitations, but it challenged me to re-frame my approach.

I may ask the child to go on a walk throughout the home during the call in order to see his or her surroundings, or sometimes I may text for communication instead of calling. There are some children that may not feel safe expressing themselves because the person who antagonizes them in the home could be in the room with them when we’re meeting.

Now that I don’t have to commute from house to house, I have extra hours in my day to sit, recoup and look into ways to bring a new sense of social work and education to the families we serve. Those are the elements I hope to continue as we start to think about transitioning to in-person visits.

Jimmy.F | BHD Therapeutic Mentor (Roxbury Office)
I work with children ranging from six-years-old to sixteen-years-old, supporting them with social and communication skills. In these challenging times, the inability to meet with the youth is tough because it’s better when we’re able to meet face-to-face. I usually take them out in the community where they can interact with other youth. Such interactions allow me to assess what skills the youth need and to work on improving his or her social and communication skills. Really and truly, I’m a big kid myself when we’re outdoors. Sometimes to understand what they’re going through, I have to bring myself to their level.…READ MORE…

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, working from home was challenging because it was tough to keep the youth’s attention over the phone. There were a lot of distractions in their homes, so it was tough to get their full, undivided attention.

Another factor was that families felt as though I was invading their privacy on video calls. As the weeks progressed, I had to work with families to create a space in their homes, as simple as a corner with a chair, that was designated to the youth during the time we connect on a video call. 

One-on-ones with the youth include time to do their homework, sometimes that’s the only time during the day that they are focused enough to buckle down and do their assignments. We also discuss how they’re coping and participate in online games and activities.

During the COIVD-19 pandemic, I was able to help a family get their Internet turned on. One of the families I support was struggling because the caregiver didn’t have Internet and the youth was unable to do his schoolwork while at home.

Even though cable companies were offering free WiFi during the pandemic, the caregiver didn’t know how to sign up. I tried to walk the caregiver through the sign up process over the phone, but the efforts were unsuccessful.

I then suggested we contact the cable provider over a three-way phone call and allow authorization for me to speak on the caregiver’s behalf. Upon advocating, there were some obstacles due to past due balances, but in the end, after escalating the call and speaking to supervisors and managers, within minutes the family’s Internet and cable were turned on.

I also connected with the Family Partner who supports the family.  Together we provided resources to help the family with the cable/Internet bill payment. It was gratifying to hear weeks later that funds were provided to cover the family’s outstanding balance with the cable company.

I’ve been with CSR for four years and I’ve heard a lot of stories and seen a lot of struggles from the families with whom I work.  We may not make 100% difference, but from my experience, we’re making a big difference in the community that we serve. Our agency is doing a really good job during this time, even internally, I feel very supported by my managers.

Margela.O | BHD Family Partner (Roxbury Office)
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my work focused on supporting caregivers with their needs, including self-care, advocacy for their family, and navigating services and systems. Since the pandemic, there’s a shift to mostly focusing on helping them manage their stress; caregivers have become more stressed…READ MORE…

As a Family Partner, typically I do not work directly with a family’s children, but right now during the pandemic, as I’m speaking with the caregivers, if they appear overwhelmed and I observe the children are hyper in the background, I take that time to speak with the children in efforts to give the caregiver a break.

A half-hour interacting with the children over the phone is a significant amount of time for a caregiver to get something done, or simply have a moment of peace. Sometimes I call caregivers intentionally to give them a break by using the time to speak with their children over the phone.

I had to meet parents where they are and gauge their level of stress.When I assess their lives with my own reality, having six children and working from home, it is easy to realize that we are all going through this crisis together.

There are caregivers who suffer from mental illness, postpartum depression and anxiety attacks, coupled with being home 24/7 with the children who may have their own behavioral health issues, it’s a stressful combination. The hours when children were in school used to be a break for caregivers, and for the children, but because of the pandemic, they no longer have that personal space. I take my own experiences and support them through their stress. 

I’ve had caregivers tell me that they know their children need one-on-one time, but they are unable to give the necessary time and attention to their children because they are working from home and sometimes no one else is in the home.

My own children called me to an emergency family meeting; they sat me down, crying, and said, “Mom, you’re here but we don’t have you, you’re not available to any of us.” These are the sacrifices that we’re all making as caregivers. Before the pandemic I was able to spread my day; I would give my children the pieces of attention they each needed. Now, during COVID-19, they all need me at the same time, so it’s challenging to balance. It hurt me to hear my children say those words, but at the same time it allows me to empathize with the caregivers I support. 

It’s a unique skill to possess. As a Family Partner, I am careful not to compare my life to that of the families I serve, but I am always candid with them. I never volunteer my experience to them because I don’t want them to feel as though I’m comparing my situation with theirs. Everyone is different. We can both have six children, but a caregiver may suffer with postpartum depression and I don’t, or my children may have mental health issues and theirs don’t, or I may have mental, financial and emotional support systems that they don’t, so their household experiences and stresses will be different than mine and visa-versa. Supporting them is not about relating, it’s about empathizing. It’s important for me to empathize more than compare our lives; it avoids triggers for the caregivers.

Maria.G | Supportive Case Worker (Worcester)
In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic I felt really frustrated. Being unable to go outside to provide basic needs for myself and for the families we serve was stressful. I also had to manage my child’s middle school assignments which pushed me to focus on time management and self-care…READ MORE…

When families were having anxiety due to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), I provided them with methods to make masks using materials in their homes, until our agency was able to provide PPE.

When families were experiencing a shortage of food, I provided them with a list of food resources in their area. I continue to email, text and call to share any updated resources with families.

The grocery store gift cards our agency provided in response to the COVID-19 Family Phone Survey also helped because it allowed families to purchase items that couldn’t be purchased with food stamps.

As time progresses, families are still in need of support and resources, but their level of anxiety has decreased; they are beginning to slowly go outside as cities reopen.

Ralph.T *Photo Unavailable* | BHD Intensive Care Coordinator (Roxbury Office)
Working during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging because everything is moving fast; I have to respond to requests a lot faster. Before the pandemic, when we would try to schedule a school visit for a youth, we would have to find a common time between all the providers. Now we’re all quarantined and working remotely, availability is easier to maneuver and we don’t have to factor in travel, so processes happen faster…READ MORE…

As an Intensive Care Coordinator (ICC), I’m the person who navigates the team, who the team turns to for resources. If the team needs a resource, they reach out to me; I do the research and provide the findings. During COVID-19 the need for resources significantly increased, but resources have been limited.

The inability to provide face-to-face time with the families has been challenging. During the pandemic, one family I support experienced two shootings; one of the shootings resulted in a death and one of them resulted in a child being paralyzed. The youth was already dealing with trauma after witnessing a shooting last year, which is why our services are in place.

I was able to be there remotely for the family, to make referrals for grief counseling and to have a Family Partner support the caregiver, but there’s a difference when I can walk into a family’s home and give the reassurance as I’m looking them in their eyes telling them I’m here for them, CSR is here for them, and they have my support. Social distancing doesn’t allow me to do that.

We’re a community-based service, so it’s been tough that we can’t be in the community. We are still a community in the sense of being there for one another and the families we serve, but the ability to be there in-person has a greater impact. 

I also had a case where the caregiver’s mother passed away in a nursing home due to COVID-19. The mother passed away on a Wednesday and was cremated on Friday. It happened so fast. It required immediate coordination of resources and supports to make sure the family had a team in place for their needs. 

There’s a lot that goes into managing one case; it’s an average of 60 conversations, and I manage a total of 16 families. Sixty conversations would typically represent a biweekly span, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, since I can’t be face-to-face and everything must be done remotely, it’s phone call after phone call. It’s constant. Usually, there’s a team of seven or eight people, so that’s seven or eight conversations that I’m having weekly, particularly for families going through a crisis.

I’m supporting a family where the youth was placed in a Community Based Acute Treatment (CBAT) unit during the COVID-19 pandemic because of unsafe behavior he was displaying at home. The police were called to the home and the youth was transferred to Boston Medical and then to a CBAT unit. That facility wasn’t the right level of care to manage the youth’s behavior, so he was then transferred to a unit in Worcester. The youth is from Boston but spent weeks in Worcester, away from home, so teams were in place to be there for the caregiver and for the youth.

In this situation, I was in constant contact every day with the providers; the behavioral health hospital where the youth stayed and the youth’s team of seven supporters. I had to update the team daily on what was going on with the youth and coordinate preparations for when the youth transitioned back home, such as assessing what referrals needed to be in place to support the youth. Referrals can include in-home behavioral services for the youth to monitor and manage his behavior and possibly a Family Partner to give the caregiver extra support with the transition and provide new, innovative parenting skills.

In these challenging times, a positive outcome is that my time management skills have improved. I wake up earlier, around 6:00 a.m., to have my personal self-care time, create my checklists and map out my meetings before the text messages, phone calls and emails start coming. I’ve been able to share such acquired skills with the families I support, which in return helps them manage and reduce their anxiety and helps support their organization for managing the household.   

Tatiana.A | BHD Therapeutic Mentor (Roxbury Office)
Keeping consistent schedules with the youth I support has been challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic because their schedules for school constantly change. Keeping them engaged during our sessions has also been challenging because their siblings or other factors in the home distract them…READ MORE…

To achieve more effective check-ins, I worked with the caregivers weekly to create and implement in-home schedules, such as when younger siblings would take naps or when other siblings would have class sessions with their school teachers.

I would then use such information to strategically schedule my one-on-one with the youth I support. In the moments when such planning still fall short, I welcome their siblings to engage in activities in which the youth and I are participating.

William.B | BHD Therapeutic Mentor (Roxbury Office)
Things are different, but I’ve been making the best of it. My team and I did a “ride-by,” but we maintained all the protocols to prevent spreading COVID-19.  The youth and family came out on the porch and I stood about 10ft away. We spoke briefly about how they were coping. At the end of the conversation, one of the youth I support said, “I can’t wait until we can go out to get some ice-cream.” That statement for me proved how much he valued our connection…READ MORE…

The caregivers also appreciated the efforts we Therapeutic Mentors put forth to come out and engage with youth. It’s important to let the families we support see our faces, not just through mobile devices, but see us, look us in our eyes and connect with us. It makes a big difference.

During these challenging times I had to get creative with my outreach. I’ve been doing virtual exercises during my phone check-ins with the youth I support. They love it; they really get into it and at times bring props such as weights and athletic headbands. We do rotations of squats, sit-ups and stretching. One day, one of my mentees grabbed one of his younger siblings to get involved as well, so that made it even more fun.

My interactions during this time with the families and youth I support further show that we’re committed to maintaining contact in whatever ways we can. COVID-19 has given us the ability to become even more creative.

You too can support what we do! As a human services agency, we are always welcoming monetary donations and donations of goods or personal protective equipment.

You can also share this newsletter to help raise awareness and spread the word to support communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.