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U of T researcher develops tool to help child welfare workers engage with families during COVID-19

As phone calls replaced face-to-face meetings during COVID-19, a tool created by Barbara Fallon and her colleagues gave child welfare workers a road map during conversations with individuals in their care (photo courtesy of Faculty of Social Work)

When the pandemic hit, the University of Toronto’s Barbara Fallon met with several of her research partners from child welfare agencies for a virtual brainstorming session to come up with a simple, practical way to help front-line workers support vulnerable families and children during the pandemic.

The result? A series of electronic checklists child welfare workers can use during phone calls to gauge how children and families are coping with COVID-19.

The online tool has already been adopted in several provinces and will soon be available in other countries.

“We kind of built the plane while we were in the air, but we were determined to get something useful in the hands of workers as quickly as possible,” says Fallon, a Canada Research Chair in Child Welfare and professor at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

“Child welfare workers typically rely on face-to-face meetings with families to get an immediate sense of their struggles. When they suddenly could no longer visit people at home, they needed a different way to engage.”

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Tara Black and Bryn King, both assistant professors in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, worked with Professor Barbara Fallon to develop a tool to help child welfare workers engage with families during the pandemic.

The new tool created by Fallon and her partners – including Assistant Professors Tara Black and Bryn King of Social Work, Delphine Collin-Vézina from McGill University and Ashley Vandermorris from The Hospital for Sick Children – uses carefully formulated questions that offer child welfare workers a road map to use during phone conversations with individuals in their care.

There are 10 checklists to date, with questions covering key areas of concern ranging from economic hardship and mental health to alcohol and substance abuse and intimate partner violence.

It’s more than an assessment tool. Each checklist item provides instant online access to relevant local resources that have emerged during the pandemic. If families don’t have technology for online schooling, for example, the tool links child welfare workers to a program that provides internet service for low-income Canadians. Fallon and her colleagues regularly gather feedback from agencies that are using the tool and then refine the checklists and resources accordingly.

Over more than 20 years, Fallon has built an evidence-based understanding of the trajectories of children and families in the child welfare system by collecting national and provincial data. She continues to direct large-scale incidence studies of reported child abuse that have informed organizations such as the United Nations and have contributed to improvements in policy and practice by helping child welfare workers and others understand how the experiences of individual children and families fit into those of the population as a whole.

In February, Fallon received a U of T President’s Impact Award in recognition of the far-reaching effects of her scholarship and advocacy. 

“Professor Fallon’s remarkable body of work exemplifies how research leads to positive outcomes for communities through advancements in policy and care,” says University Professor Ted Sargent, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.

“Addressing COVID-19 extends well beyond preventing the spread of the virus and advancements in testing and medical care. Social Work research has a vital role to play in responding to this global pandemic and U of T researchers are leading the way.”

For Fallon, who believes strongly in the importance of data in child welfare, COVID-19 has presented a unique challenge.

“This is unchartered territory in the system,” says Fallon. “We have no exemplar to follow.”

To fill this gap, she and U of T pediatrics professor Steven Miller produced a report, via U of T’s Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development, on potential policy solutions to mitigate the negative impact COVID-19 has on children in care. Miller, who is head of the Centre for Brain & Mental Health at the Hospital for Sick Children, co-leads the Fraser Mustard Institute’s Act Now Policy Bench with Fallon.

“We know that COVID-19 and the regulations to contain it have put children and youth at higher risk of harm from things like neglect, psychological distress and exposure to violence,” Fallon says.

The report – which reached an international audience through a webinar – delivered practical recommendations for ensuring continuity of care in the pandemic, including increased co-ordination across all child welfare sectors.

“It had tremendous uptake because we were one of the first out of the gate and people were desperate for guidance,” Fallon says. “Since then, the research worldwide continues to progress.”

Fallon’s research has also examined the overrepresentation of racialized and Indigenous children in the system – a fact that remains top of mind in her pandemic-related projects. She co-authored a recent paper on potential short- and long-term solutions to the health and socioeconomic inequities that the pandemic has exacerbated in Canadian Indigenous communities.

At a more grassroots level, in response to the evidence produced by the policy bench, she collaborated with Native Child and Family Services of Toronto this summer on a pilot program that brought more than 50 Indigenous families to city parks for safe outdoor activities.

Today, with a second wave of COVID-19 approaching, Fallon says the child welfare system is better prepared.

“We’ve experienced a total lockdown and have come out with lots of lessons learned. If we as researchers never lose sight of the immediate needs on the ground, we have an enormous ability to support children and families through this unprecedented time.”

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