Helping At-Risk Youth During a Global Health Crisis
April 06, 2020
“Two months ago, placing a child in a foster home wasn’t a problem. Now it’s nearly impossible,” says Child/Adult Protective Services Specialist Kalani Motta. “Yesterday, I had to move children from one foster home to another, and I had to interact with the foster parents, so I physically had to go into their home. But I’m not provided with personal protective equipment or anything, so it’s scary. We come into contact with so many people, so we just gotta go in and hope we don’t get sick.”
One of Motta’s primary duties as a case manager with the Department of Human Services in Hilo is to find foster homes for children in East Hawaii. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, he’s been classified as an essential employee, and although he was given the option to work from home during the crisis, the nature of his job doesn’t allow for it. “Certain parts of this job, there’s no way you can work from home,” he says. “When we respond to calls of concern, we have to go out and physically locate the family. The only way we can help these children is if we get out there and do it in person. It can’t be done remotely.”
Before the pandemic, most of the calls Motta responded to typically came from schools. Now that students are not in the schools, the calls are coming in from the public. “We still go out, we still investigate and try to place the kids in our care. Our responsibilities haven’t stopped because of the health crisis, but it’s much more stressful to maintain a high level of service,” he says, describing what it’s like to be an essential worker.
PROVIDING THE BARE MINIMUM FOR ESSENTIAL WORKERS
Even more frustrating than the coronavirus itself is the lack of clear, consistent communication employees are given and the chaos it creates. “We’re used to dealing with adversity and challenges that come with the job, but at the same time, it’s even more stressful now because we’re not getting any clear guidance or directives from the department,” Motta says. He acknowledges that the building he works in is now locked and requires a key card to enter, but many employees are still reporting to work, clients are still meeting with staff, and until recently, the building was open to the public. After employers were made aware of an incident where a courier allegedly tested positive for COVID-19, employees were told the building would be cleaned just one time. “They told us the building would be cleaned for a few hours one day, but that’s not enough. And what does that even mean? How well was the building cleaned?” he wonders. “We’re considered essential but we’re not being provided with PPE, cleaning supplies or even clear information about what’s going on. The misinformation or lack of communication creates anxiety in an already stressful situation.” Regarding the incident itself, Motta is still hazy on the details. “I don’t know if he actually entered the building, or if he did, where he went, or when it was. There’s no clear source of information, so people want to stay away because they’re being cautious. They don’t want to contract the virus and then take it home to their families.”
Understandably, the situation is wearing on Motta and his colleagues. Shared office spaces don’t always allow for adequate social distancing and employees often risk their personal health for the welfare of their clients, many of whom are minors in need of a place to live. “We try to do social distancing in the office, and I’m lucky – on my floor there are individual offices so we can close the door. The floor above is all cubicles and I can hear them coughing. But our whole department is essential. Some workers are given the option to work remotely, although most are coming in,” he says. “I think for all of us, our main priority is to protect our families – those we serve and those we go home to, but it’s hard. And I think everyone is feeling the same burden of wanting to do good work but also wanting to stay safe.”
ADAPTING TO DIMINISHING RESOURCES
Like many others, Motta’s had to accept that “business as usual” just isn’t the norm anymore. He still attends hearings for his cases, but they’re no longer scheduled regularly. Review hearings typically scheduled every five or six months are being pushed back indefinitely, and only protective custody hearings or cases involving extreme circumstances are being scheduled. “There’s no enforcement of the checks and balances that should be in place to help these families,” he says. “I get it, people are being super cautious, but it’s still frustrating to see how this is affecting families and the quality of life for the kids in our care.”
Legal proceedings meant to help families aren’t the only resource Motta sees decreasing. He has a difficult time just getting basic healthcare services for his clients. “I’ll sometimes recommend therapy, or a consultation with a doctor, but it’s hard to move forward when therapists aren’t returning my calls and doctors aren’t taking new patients.”
Some of the most wrenching changes he’s seen are with court-ordered visitations and the declining willingness of foster homes to take in new children. “There’s no in-person visitation anymore. They’re all being done by phone or on FaceTime now,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking. Especially now when you’re trying to maintain the family time and relationships.” Ironically, the social distancing measures meant to keep us away from one another are working too well. “Placing children in foster homes is extremely challenging right now. Foster parents are stressing out, and reluctant to take new kids into their home, so we’re doing our best, but it feels like we’re using chicken wire and zip ties,” he says about the temporary solutions being used until he can find a safe, permanent home for foster children.
Despite everything, Motta remains optimistic and knows we’ll get through this together. “Randy’s messages are helpful and reaching workers,” he says about HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira. “The members know it’s hard to get consistency from the employer, and it’s nice to hear it straight from him. I’m glad he’s got our backs and holding the employer accountable.”