OVERCOMING OWN FEARS TO BUILD TRUST: Faizah Sharif got past her initial concern about infecting clients and has played a key role in getting tablets and iPads for remote learning for the children she serves. 'The families have actually been more open to our support because they feel more isolated,' she said.

As millions of New Yorkers shifted to working from home because of the state shutdown orders, Child Protective Specialists continued visiting families across the city to help them obtain critical resources such as food and shelter.

Their efforts were celebrated during Child Protective Specialist Appreciation Week, which was launched by Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell in 2018 to honor the work 2,000 CPS staff do to investigate more than 60,000 reports of child abuse or neglect each year.

While normally CPS staff would be honored on the steps of City Hall, this year’s festivities looked quite different due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Hansell conducted an online Town Hall June 8, with the event to culminate June 14 in a virtual Family Fun Day.

Feared Infecting Clients

For Faizah Sharif, a Child Protective Specialist in Brooklyn who has been on the job eight years, her main concern during the past few months has been that she would infect the families she served.

“We travel a lot, so the worry was really ‘How can I ensure I’m not bringing germs into this house?’” she said.

ACS provided CPS staff with face masks and hand sanitizer, and also distributed the personal protective equipment to the families they visited in order to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The Specialists also increasingly relied on video chats with families in order to conduct home visits, which was a method that had been used in the past occasionally, including for checking in with children who were out of state, said Bronx CPS Tuwanna Hoover, who has worked at ACS for 13 years.

“There’s a lot more technology, so we’re not exposing them to the virus. It’s improved our communication with families,” she said.

Out From Underground

CPS workers also increasingly relied on Zipcar, a car-sharing program that ACS partnered with in 2018, as subway and bus service decreased thanks to a plunge in ridership due to the Governor’s shutdown orders, the agency noted.

And besides the boosted technological supports to help them on the job, ACS provided CPS staffers with mental-health check-ins, Ms. Sharif stated.

For many of the families ACS works with, the economic impact of the shutdown exacerbated already-existing issues such as food shortages. “We have workers who go food shopping and clothes shopping for children,” Ms. Hoover said.

“Pandemic or not, we’re here to support the family,” Ms. Sharif added.

But the crisis also added new anxieties. “One of the biggest concerns was the shift to remote-learning,” Ms. Sharif said.

Not Enough Devices

The Department of Education estimated that 300,000 students did not have a device that could be used for online instruction, and families scrambled to get one of the 175,000 devices the DOE distributed the week before remote-learning began March 23.

Ms. Sharif explained that the CPS worked with the DOE to obtain tablets and iPads for families, and connected parents and students who did not speak English with ESL supports in order to help them understand their child’s lessons.

“It caused a lot of stress in the home. We’ve been ensuring that children can continue their education,” she said.

One surprising result of the pandemic was that it increased trust between CPS and the families they serve, both workers noted.

“The families have actually been more open to our support because they feel more isolated,” Ms. Sharif said.

ACS reported a 54-percent drop in child-abuse claims during the pandemic, with 3,855 complaints made between March 23 and May 4, down from 8,351 during the same period a year earlier. The agency cautioned that those figures likely did not mean that fewer children were neglected, but likely reflected the fact that mandated reporters such as Teachers and health-care workers were interacting with children less frequently.

'More Urgent Cases'

Ms. Hoover stated that she did not personally experience a drop in the number of clients she had, “but the difference is that we’re getting more urgent cases—cases involving domestic violence and mental-health issues,” she explained.

Ms. Sharif said that although the events honoring child-welfare staff were different this year, she felt that more people understood the importance of Child Protective Specialists.

And another upside?

“Because this CPS Appreciation Week is virtual, it’ll be for the whole world to see,” she said.

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