Mar 13 2020

CASA of Travis County’s COVID-19 Response and Protocols

Updated as of 3/22/20

Like many of you, we are paying close attention to the evolving COVID-19 situation locally and nationwide. The safety of the children we serve, our volunteers and our staff is of paramount importance. We are determined to take prudent measures to help keep people safe, while attempting to avoid panic and continuing to fulfill our critical mission. We’re adjusting our practices and protocols to prioritize safety while still supporting our essential advocacy for children in need. As the situation is constantly evolving, we will continue to evaluate our practices and response, and this page will be updated to reflect the most recent information for our community.

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Office Closure

The CASA offices will be closed from March 18–27. We will reevaluate as we get closer to the 27th. 

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Child Visits & Meetings

For our volunteer advocates and staff, the following changes will be made to our standard child visit practices:

  • Effective immediately we are suspending all child and family visits.
  • We are requiring weekly contact via a video-conferencing tool during the hiatus of in-person visits to verbal-aged children, and to caregivers if children are too young to speak. In the event a child is too young for video or phone calls, please use video conferencing when possible to see the children to ensure they are okay while you are speaking to the caregiver. If video is not possible, phone calls will work. If you need assistance meeting this requirement, please let your supervisor know and we will help you.
  • These restrictions will remain in effect through 3/31/2020 and we will reevaluate and communicate with our volunteers and community again before that time.

The fear and anxiety that many of us are feeling may only be compounded for the children and youth we serve who have also been affected by trauma.

The fear and anxiety that many of us are feeling may only be compounded for the children and youth we serve who have also been affected by trauma, and may trigger trauma-associated thoughts/behaviors in/from the child or create additional tension in the child’s home or placement. Therefore it is vital to have eyes on the children we serve in any way possible to help them stay calm and connected. Not communicating with a child in these most stressful, difficult times when connections are most valuable could undo all of the work done to create a relationship. It is vital for the volunteer to maintain regular (weekly) contact with the child either through the use of Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime (or other non-video tools if needed), especially where kids are in congregate care settings, such as shelters or RTCs. We are working to ensure that the facilities where our children are housed can accommodate more frequent phone or video contact.

We anticipate that case meetings, such as FGCs and ARDs, will continue using video-conferencing software or by phone.

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Presenting in Court

Read the Travis County Courts Emergency Order

Read the Texas Supreme Court Emergency Order

The Honorable Judge Darlene Byrne and The Honorable Judge Aurora Martinez-Jones have developed separate protocols for handling hearings during the current public health emergency. CASA staff have received the current detailed protocols and are available to help clarify and answer any questions as volunteers continue to advocate for children. Please note that these protocols are subject to change at any time in the coming weeks. CASA will post updates as we become aware.

Protocols in effect for both Judge Byrne’s and Judge Martinez-Jones’s hearings are:

  • All hearings will be held remotely, either via email or video conferencing.
  • CASA (and CPS) are expected to write and file timely court reports for hearings as usual.
  • TMC and PMC hearings (and CPS portion of Judge Byrne’s crossover hearings) will occur by email, which will be initiated by the Court. Parties, including CASA, will participate in hearings by replying all with updates, specific requests for new orders or changes to existing orders, and responses to questions posed by the Court.
  • Email communications for each hearing will conclude at 5 pm on the scheduled hearing date, and the Court will make orders after that time and within 2 business days. The ADA will draft and circulate the Court’s orders. Court staff will notify the parties of next hearing dates and case dismissal dates, as applicable.

Protocols specific to Judge Byrne’s hearings:

  • Judge Byrne’s COS hearings will be suspended until after the conclusion of the public emergency. The Court may create an extended COS scheduling order for affected cases.
  • Judge Byrne will initiate hearing email chains on the Friday prior to scheduled Tuesday hearings.
  • For Judge Byrne’s Tuesday hearings, CASA should reply with specific requests using the “Attorney/GAL Report for Email Hearing” form provided by the Court. (This is not necessary in the event that all parties are in agreement and the DA submits an agreed order to the Court.)
  • Merits settings on Judge Byrne’s Tuesday docket will be conducted primarily by evidence submitted by written affidavit, and may also involve video conferencing, as determined by the Court on a case-by-case basis.
  • Trial settings should not be considered canceled or reset until expressly stated by Judge Byrne or her staff.

Protocols specific to Judge Martinez-Jones’s dockets:

  • While most hearings are expected to be conducted via email, Judge Martinez-Jones has stipulated that some hearings may be heard via video conferencing if requested by one or more of the parties.
  • Judge Martinez-Jones’s COS hearings will occur via email in the same method as TMC and PMC hearings on her docket.
  • Trials/merits settings will be postponed and dismissal dates adjusted as needed.
  • Considerations specific to Drug Court cases:
    • Drug Court cases with hearings set for Thursday March 26 will proceed via email (or video conferencing, if requested by one or more parties and granted by the Court.)
    • Speaker Docket on Thursday March 26 has been canceled. o Drug Court hearings will be rescheduled and conducted remotely, beginning with a small docket of priority cases on Thursday April 2.
    • The Court is developing a plan to hold the professionals-only Drug Court staffings (Thursday mornings) via video conferencing beginning on Thursday April 2.
    • All participants will receive an emergency court order with adjustments to previous orders considering that the public emergency may require changes.

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Recruitment, Trainings, & Info Sessions 

We still have big goals for recruitment this year in order to help the 775 children who went without a volunteer in 2019, knowing that the majority of the children we serve come from vulnerable populations who may be more dramatically affected by the pandemic. We will need more volunteers to advocate for children still in need once we’re back to regular operations.

We’re equipping ourselves to continue recruiting online. We will be conducting Volunteer Info Sessions and pre-training interviews virtually.

We are actively preparing to provide the initial volunteer training virtually through the Zoom online video-conferencing tool starting with our next classes on Mar 23. We will communicate with current trainees as these are scheduled.

Check out our blog post about how you can connect with interesting new people online, keep your brain active by learning new skills, and have a positive impact on our community by becoming a CASA volunteer: 

Find Growth & Connection During Self-Quarantine and Social Distancing

We will be move forward with our continuing education trainings for current volunteers on this system as well. We will communicate with current volunteers once these are scheduled.

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Events & Other Group Activities

As much as we want to thank our dedicated volunteers, we are unfortunately changing plans for our annual mid-April Volunteer Appreciation Party to comply with the City’s orders. We will continue to evaluate our plans as the situation progresses but want you to know that we appreciate our dedicated volunteers from afar!

We are currently evaluating all other future group activities and events for our children, volunteers and supporters. We will make timely, appropriate decisions prioritizing the safety of our community and will immediately inform all affected by any decisions to postpone or cancel other future activities.

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Stay Informed

We encourage all of our volunteers, staff and supporters to stay informed and protect themselves and others. As this is ongoing, we will make any needed updates to our protocol on this webpage, and will inform our staff and volunteers of urgent changes via email and text messaging.

You can follow local updates and recommendations on the City of Austin’s COVID-19 website: http://www.austintexas.gov/COVID19

Questions? Email us with any questions or concerns you have may have.

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