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Volunteers use internet to check foster kids during pandemic

Girl making a video call via tablet at home

DENVER — The call usually comes around 7 each night, while Sarah Sparks is watching a movie with her two daughters on the couch. She keeps her phone close so she doesn’t miss it.

On the other end of the line is a 7-year-old girl, a foster child who lives in a Denver residential treatment center, a girl whose future is unsettled as long as the criminal charges against her mother are pending. At night, when the children who live in the center have showered and put on their pajamas and are allowed to call home, the girl has no one to call but Sparks, her court-appointed special advocate, The Colorado Sun reported.

“I ask her how her day was and what she had for lunch and if she needs new shoes,” said Sparks, who became a CASA volunteer three years ago. Before they hang up, they always say the same thing.

“I love you, sweetie. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” Sparks tells the girl. And the child responds, “You’re the best place anyone could be. The best person anyone could see.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sparks is not allowed to visit the child, per the recommendations of the residential center as well as Boulder Voices for Children, the nonprofit that trained her to become a CASA. Sparks first met the girl in August, visiting her at her first foster home and then her second. Sparks saw the child twice at the residential treatment center before the coronavirus pushed their connection to nightly phone calls and once-a-week FaceTimes.

It is what’s happened during the pandemic to hundreds of relationships between Colorado foster kids and the volunteers trying to make sure they are safe. Instead of monthly trips to the park or rounds of mini golf, CASAs — whose role is to speak up in court for what is best for a child at the center of an abuse and neglect case — are searching for ways to maintain connections, even when they can’t see their kids.

County child protective workers still are required to see kids in person to investigate an allegation of abuse or neglect, but in cases in which a child was already placed in a foster home or with relatives, many caseworkers are doing virtual visits instead of stopping by in person, same as CASA volunteers.

At the same time, child advocates fear that because there are fewer eyes on children — from teachers, neighbors, doctors and others — abuse and neglect is going unreported. Calls to the statewide child abuse hotline have dropped significantly since schools closed and Colorado instituted a stay-at-home order.

In April, calls to the child abuse hotline totaled 13,055, down from 20,620 last April.

Since the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect March 26, 252 children have been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect investigations. There are 4,502 kids currently in foster or kinship placements.

The upside is that, maybe because people have more time or because the training sessions have moved online, Colorado has not seen a decline in the number of volunteers training to become CASAs during the pandemic, and organizations that hold information sessions about foster parenting also have noticed healthy attendance rates.

Colorado CASA launched a campaign in January to add 2,000 more volunteers in 2020, and then in March, their offices shut down. Training sessions were moved online. Judges in some counties are swearing in new volunteers over Zoom, asking them to face the computer screen and hold up their hands.

CASAs were matched with 4,800 kids last year — a fraction of the 13,000 children who could have gotten a court-appointed advocate if one was available.

Executive director Jenny Bender is holding her breath that state funding for the program isn’t reduced during massive budget cuts brought on by the pandemic. The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee so far is recommending keeping the $1.5 million CASA budget intact, but noted that a 10% cut is possible.

Looking into bruises via Zoom

Stories have emerged during the pandemic of volunteers not only connecting virtually with kids, but helping their families set up food delivery through local nonprofits and school districts, or finding child care when parents are essential workers but kids have no school, Bender said.

Michele Choka, a CASA volunteer in Grand Junction, was assigned a brother and sister during the pandemic and had to meet them for the first time over the computer screen. She sent them each a coloring book and a box of crayons — “Frozen” for the girl and Pokémon for her little brother — and they opened the gifts during their first conversation.

Choka asked the kids five questions each and said she would draw their answers on her sketch pad. “What do you dream about? What color is your mom’s hair? What is your favorite food?” she asked. They got to ask her five questions and draw her answers, too. The game was less-threatening than a direct question-and-answer session.

It was during the second virtual call that Choka noticed the bruises on the young girl’s legs.

The child said they were from falling off while trying to learn to ride a bike without training wheels. So for the next few calls, Choka asked to watch the girl practice bike riding. The bruises faded as she got better at riding the bike, and no new ones appeared.

“Had they not gone away, I would have reported it,” Choka said.

The children, whose mother is in prison, live with their dad and grandmother. Choka drove by one day and asked them to come out front and wave to her, just so they could see each other in person. She’s also been talking to the girl’s teacher.

Mesa County CASA is asking its volunteers not to visit kids in person until June 1, but Choka is hoping to make a case to visit the kids sooner.

In Montrose, the local CASA organization gathered foster teenagers and young adults who have aged out of the foster care system to deliver meals to senior citizens who are shut in their homes because of the virus.

The Montrose office raised more than $20,000 from foundations and pulled the food-delivery program together in less than a day. The funds pay for meal boxes from Heidi’s Deli and Backstreet Bagel Company, then youth volunteers gather twice each week, divide into teams, and deliver the boxes to doorsteps in Montrose and Delta.

Relationships are forming on front porches, said Carlton Mason, CEO of the CASA program for the six-county 7th Judicial District. If seniors asked for toilet paper, flour, hand sanitizer or masks, volunteers tracked down the items and delivered those, too.

The best part, he said, is that it’s the first chance for young people who have been on the receiving end of charity to give to others in need.

“When all this is over, we will have some people who want to have dinner together,” Mason said.

County caseworkers in masks are investigating abuse allegations

Despite the pandemic, child protection caseworkers are still required by law to see kids in person when their departments believe there is a credible allegation of abuse or neglect.

Each morning, a team at the Denver County Human Services child welfare division meets — now virtually — to discuss tips received by the child abuse hotline. On a busy morning, there are a dozen tips to discuss. Reports that are deemed credible are assigned to intake caseworkers, who have been putting on masks and knocking on doors this spring, said Anna Vavruska, who is a supervisor at the division.

The fact that kids are home all the time, living with parents who are accused of abuse, has added another challenge to the job — caseworkers can’t talk to them at school and are instead asking them to take a walk or talk on the porch.

Caseworkers assigned to children who are living with foster families or in residential treatment centers are required by law to see those kids at least once per month. In cases where that hasn’t been possible, such as when the center doesn’t allow visitors, caseworkers are asked to do weekly check-ins via phone or computer, Vavruska said.

Another coronavirus-related change is in-home drug testing, via urine or hair follicle, so parents do not have to go to a lab. And a few caseworkers have had families tell them they will not talk to them or let them interview their children because they are afraid of the virus.

“Everyone is worried about their own family’s health and safety,” Vavruska said.

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