Organization works to provide care and safety for children

D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s uses telehealth, field teams to respond to crisis needs of children and families.
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While recognizing the number of child abuse reports will in all likelihood rise after the stay-at-home order ends, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s is working hard to ensure the safety of children now.

The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit, like all other organizations, has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and is following social distancing rules and limiting all nonessential contact.

But as an agency that serves the community’s most vulnerable populations, D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s is committed to continuing to serve and protect, said President and CEO Jim Paparella.

Paparella spoke to the Business Journal on April 13 about his staff’s frontline efforts to serve children and families through its child welfare, family preservation services and residential services divisions.

The first of those three encompasses foster care licensing and oversight as well as adoption services.

The second offers mental health services for families and children in schools, offices and homes.

The third division is built for housing children whose emotional and behavioral needs have prevented them from maintaining stable foster care placements.

Paparella said DABSJ foster care and adoption workers continue to stay connected with their children and family clients by hosting visits over Skype, FaceTime or TeleHealth. As needed and when urgent, they are continuing to visit homes and engage children and families.

He said the agency’s family preservation services division also is using TeleHealth technology to stay connected and provide services. According to a post on the DABSJ website, its Kent School Services Network (KSSN) team is helping out with delivering food to families that don’t have transportation and sharing new engagement strategies; the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) team is providing direct services to clients; and the Family Support Services team also is checking in with families more frequently and coordinating with other providers in the community to ensure needs are being met.

Residential care is perhaps one of the most challenging divisions to serve during COVID-19, Paparella said, because there is nowhere else to send the children, and they must receive 24/7 shelter, care and treatment that can’t be done remotely. He said unfortunately, five children out of the current 25 residents had tested positive for COVID-19 as of press time and were being cared for in quarantine by workers receiving hazard pay.

Caregivers at the residential campus also are redoubling their efforts to keep social distancing in place with and between children and use “verbal de-escalations” and “hands-off” care unless a child is endangering him or herself or others.

DABSJ recently received donations of medical-grade face masks for residents and staff to wear and was implementing all the recommended sanitization and hygiene protocol.

Ordinarily, residential enrollment would be higher right now, Paparella said, but referrals are down. He expects this to continue temporarily during the stay-at-home order.

“A lot of children that normally might be removed by Child Protective Services are still in their homes,” he said. “We’re expecting a surge in child abuse and neglect and children being removed to their homes and taken into protective custody, but it won’t happen right now, because the schools are closed, day care centers are closed, youth gathering and recreational facilities are closed. The typical eyes on children that would see symptoms of child maltreatment aren’t there right now.”

He said child abuse is almost certainly increasing in step with the rise in underlying causes of poverty, food insecurity, housing instability, unemployment, mental health and substance abuse during this time.

“We’re going to see a pretty significant delayed surge of referrals to agencies like ours to help these families. And, hopefully, (the children are) in protective custody temporarily while we try to help reunify them with the family. But about half the kids in foster care will move into adoption because they can’t be reunified safely with their families after a certain amount of time,” he said.

Paparella said DABSJ can still take new residents due to its “incredible network” of social workers and staff volunteering to work overtime to help in the crisis, and the fact that it has “elevated” its safety measures due to the positive COVID-19 cases.

He said the organization has a “huge need” for foster homes currently, because it has not been able to go out and recruit foster parents in person as it normally would.

“We’re willing to do things virtually by providing foster parent training through virtual technology,” he said.

“But you think of our foster homes that have taken these kids into their temporary safe haven — they’re now overwhelmed with kids not being in school, and so the demand for foster homes still exceeds the number of foster homes we have. If you consider the stress of families who are now quarantined or (under the) stay home directive with their own kids, you can imagine the stress that puts on our foster parents, too. And everyone’s scrambling for masks and protective equipment, and our foster parents are no exception.”

Across all its divisions, DABSJ works with low-income families who need food and rental assistance. Paparella said despite Kent County being a resource-rich place, the system is being “taxed to an unprecedented level,” so he hopes that businesses, philanthropists and people with means will step up their donations of money and personal protective equipment to meet the new level of need.

Those who are interested in giving funds can visit dabsj.org/donation-form, or people who want to buy supplies, games or activities for DABSJ can visit the nonprofit’s Amazon Wish Lists at amzn.to/3cgE9hm and amzn.to/3cgE9hm.

Despite the volume of disconcerting news for DABSJ at this time, Paparella said he does see some bright spots.

He is pleased with how the team has come together to connect, care for each other and maintain positive morale through GoToMeeting and Zoom conferences, and they are hearing and sharing a lot of client success stories in those meetings.

“This brings out the best in people, especially those who are committed to our mission. I couldn’t be prouder of our staff and our teams. This work is not for the faint of heart already, and in this environment, especially,” he said.

“Our social work staff who are committed to serving these families are absolutely part of the essential workforce that’s out there in the field providing for children and families in crisis.”

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