Other parts of this series:
In my most recent blog, I talked about the real work of virtual interactions in child welfare. That post seems to have struck a nerve, as this topic has come up repeatedly in subsequent conversations with child welfare leaders. Knowing that these challenges are top of mind for agencies across the country, I want to take an even closer look at how to navigate this new terrain.
As you know, the COVID-19 global pandemic has forced child welfare into a virtual world it had not previously contemplated. While we all eagerly await a return to normal, we also have a growing sense about how different that new normal may be. For child welfare, it is reasonable to expect that the ability to work virtually will become an ongoing and intermittent need.
Most jurisdictions have already shifted quickly to some form of virtual ability. Largely they focused on solving a technical problem: Agencies needed a platform, they picked one and they’ve knitted together a way of maintaining contact when they could not physically visit children and families in their homes.
As I alluded to in my previous post, the challenge we now face is that moving to virtual communications is not only a technical problem. It is also an adaptive one, requiring people to change their behaviors in ways that make virtual interactions meaningful.
Consider these “before” and “after” scenarios.
BEFORE: If I were in a room with you right now, I would be sitting near you, opening my shoulders in your direction to convey to you my openness to the conversation. Were there another individual with us, I would turn in their direction and lean forward so they also know I’m interested in what they have to contribute. If they were to say something that caused you distress, I would notice your breathing changing, perhaps becoming a bit more shallow. I would use that – the smallest of changes – to inform how I would re-engage you.
This is casework. It’s thousands of behaviors that engage, inform and keep people connected in a conversation.
AFTER: In a Zoom room or FaceTime call, those opportunities disappear. Instead, I must develop a new set of tools and techniques for conveying openness, reading cues and tuning in to opportunities to overcome fear or hesitation. Those tools and techniques may include:
- Co-creating an agenda beforehand so that everyone knows what to expect.
- Placing the camera so that your face is in full view and you are looking directly into the camera
- Taking breaks to check in with all participants and inquire about how they are feeling.
- Allowing space for silence so participants can collect their thoughts.
- Making space for each person to contribute – going “around the circle” and giving every individual a chance to speak.
We have an opportunity to upskill caseworkers so that they can enrich virtual communications. We can help them create environments in which they replace in-person behaviors with on-screen behaviors – while still making the most out of these opportunities to “be with” their clients.
The manner in which we bring this new intelligence to case workers can be varied. Tip sheets that provide workers a guide to managing virtual meetings is a great place to start. This could be accompanied by role-playing exercises in which case workers can practice engaging and interacting with others through a screen. Workers could easily pair up to practice. When resources are available, it would be ideal to have a supervisor on hand to observe, coach and give feedback.
Child welfare caseworkers are in the business of hosting difficult conversations. They need children to tell them if they are being mistreated. They have to tell parents their kids are not going to come home. They negotiate plans that will keep children safe. In all these situations they manage very strong reactions from the people with whom they are speaking.
Their responsibilities for these delicate surgical procedures have not been diluted by the pandemic. Their ability to do it well has if they are managing these conversations virtually without the requisite skills. By now they have all mastered the technical tool of choice. Now we need to give them the skill set to excel.
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