Mar 13 2020

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

Updated as of 5/11/20

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–May 29. We will reevaluate as we get closer to the 29th. 

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Updated 4/14/20: Child Visits & Meetings

For our volunteer advocates and staff, the following changes will be made to our standard child visit practices (last updated 4/14/20 to reflect adjustments to our expectations around the number of times we're in contact with children):

  • Effective immediately we are suspending all in-person child and family visits.
  • Video contact continues to be the preferred method of communicating with children on your case 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. When video is not possible, phone contact is okay. If you need assistance using video conferencing tools, please let your supervisor know and we will help you.
  • All children in congregate care settings (RTCs, shelters, hospitals, etc.) should continue to receive weekly contact from CASA.
  • All children in a return of any kind (return and monitor or a COS case in which they were initially placed outside the home and were then returned to the parents) should continue to receive weekly contact from CASA.
  • Children in CWOP should receive contact from CASA at least 2 times per week.
  • All other children should receive contact from CASA every 2 weeks.
  • Exceptions to any of the above expectations may be made on a case-by-case basis but must be staffed with and approved by a Program Manager and documented in Optima.
  • These restrictions will remain in effect through 4/30/2020 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 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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Porch/Curbside Supplies Drop-Offs

Beginning Monday, 4/27/20, CASA of Travis County will allow porch/curbside drop-off of necessary supplies and resources to kids and families by both volunteers and staff. Please note that stay-at-home orders are still in place and we should avoid being out and about more than we need to. Please also note that we are still not allowing any in-person visits except those approved on an emergency basis by the Chief Program Officer.

Porch/curbside drop-off of items to children and families served by CASA will be allowed under the following conditions:

  • Face masks should be worn during any pick-up or drop-off.
  • At least 6 feet of social distance should be maintained from other people at all times.
  • Proper hand hygiene practices should be followed before and after the drop-off.
  • Advocates and staff should carry their CASA badge with them in case it becomes necessary to explain to law enforcement who they are and what they are doing.
  • Drop-off of items should not be used to facilitate a quick visit or in-person interaction with children or families. No in-person visitation is permitted at this time.
  • Expectations about virtual contact with children remain the same.
  • Advocates/staff should drop off the item(s), return to their car, and then call/text the family to let them know the item is waiting so that in-person contact can be avoided.
  • Drop-offs should be documented in Optima immediately.
  • Please coordinate with your supervisor about what is needed and limit trips to what is necessary for the child(ren)’s best interest.

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Presenting in Court

Update as of 5/7/20: 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:

  • Per the 5/7/20 order, all hearings will be held remotely through June 29, either via email or video conferencing. No one should go to the courthouse for any hearing. Statutory hearings will generally be conducted via email; hearings requiring presentation of evidence (e.g., contested hearings) may occur via Zoom video conference.
  • Per the 5/7/20 order, all jury trials are delayed until August 17 at the earliest.
  • CASA (and CPS) are expected to write and file timely court reports for hearings as usual.
  • TMC, PMC and COS hearings (and CPS portion of Judge Byrne’s crossover hearings) will occur by email. 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 in the afternoon of 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 will initiate hearing email chains on the Friday prior to scheduled Tuesday hearings.
  • Judge Byrne has set 1 pm as the closure of the email hearing thread for each hearing.
  • 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:

  • Judge Martinez-Jones’s COS hearings will occur via email in the same method as TMC and PMC hearings on her docket.
  • Judge Martinez-Jones’s email hearings will be initiated by the ADA. The ADA will notify the Court of the matters in need of a ruling from the Court, and the parties will be able to respond via email until the Court makes rulings on those matters in the afternoon of the docket day.
  • Trials/merits settings will be postponed and dismissal dates adjusted as needed.
  • Considerations specific to Drug Court cases:
    • Thursday Drug Court staffings will begin at 11 am viz Zoom video conference.
    • Thursday Drug Court hearings will begin at 1 pm via Zoom video conference.
    • 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 continuing volunteer recruiting online. We are conducting Volunteer Info Sessions and pre-training interviews virtually.

We are now providing the initial volunteer training virtually through the Zoom online video-conferencing tool.

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 move forward with our continuing education trainings for current volunteers on this system as well. We will communicate with current volunteers as 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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Answering Volunteer FAQ's

We've heard a lot of great questions from our volunteer advocates about why we've adjusted our policies and when we're planning to reinstate certain activities. Check out this interview with our Chief Program Officer Emily LeBlanc to hear some of your questions answered, and read our responses below. 

Why are we changing how often we're talking with kids right now, and what does the placement type have to do with the different required frequencies?

When we first suspended in-person visits, we did not know how long it would last. We did know that it would be a scary time for kids as their world would change drastically and quickly. We increased contact:

  • To demonstrate to kids that we are still here, we still care, and we are committed to advocating for their needs.
  • Knowing that the current situation increases the risk of abuse for everyone, especially for kids who have already experienced abuse and neglect and who now have fewer eyes on them making sure they are safe.
  • Because maintaining relationships remotely is harder: with kids, with parents, and with placements. More frequent contact helps maintain the relationships we need to be effective in our advocacy

We have shifted to less frequent contact as time has gone on, though we’ve kept weekly or higher contact for kids in placements like RTCs where we know they are at higher risk for further abuse and they are more isolated now than ever. We've kept weekly contact with kids who’ve returned home because we want to make sure the transition goes smoothly, that everyone is safe, and that as we near the end of cases, we will be able to make a strong recommendation to the Court.

Why are we emphasizing documentation in Optima so much right now?

Documentation is really important right now for 3 reasons:

  • We have already experienced volunteers and staff getting sick or needing to care for a family member, and we do not want to have to distract you with questions about what was or wasn't done on a case if CASA staff need to step in to advocate in your place.
  • We want to provide the best advocacy possible for kids even if an advocate has to step away. Documenting things as quickly as possible helps us know what’s happening in case of an emergency. We are having more contact with relatives, teachers, daycares, and other collateral contacts on cases than usual, and it's important that we have documentation so that we can continue those relationships.
  • At all times, documentation helps protect you in case there is ever a dispute about something happening during an interaction with a youth. Detailed records let us know what happened during each meeting and can help protect our volunteers and staff, as well as the youth we serve, without disrupting your ability to connect with youth and advocate appropriately. It's particularly important that you document anything unusual or troubling during meetings with kids and report it to your supervisor immediately. Report-worthy incidents include disclosures of abuse, injuries, suicidal thoughts, or conversations that feel like they push the boundaries of an appropriate relationship with you or any other adult in the child's life.

How and when will we put together a plan to get back to visits and what will that look like?

CASA leadership is constantly considering plans to resume visits, thinking about the following when deciding exactly what that looks like:

  • What is in the best interest of children. While face-to-face connection is important, keeping kids and their placements in good health is vital. We've already seen the number of available placement options go down and children without placements go up. We've also seen what happens when relative caregivers get sick and can no longer be a safe placement for youth. We do not want to be the reason that kids have to leave safe homes.
  • What will keep our volunteers and staff healthy. A significant reduction in our workforce or volunteer force would not be in kids' best interest, so we think a lot about how to keep everyone safe and healthy. We also know that kids will be safer when all of the systems that help support them—schools, sports, relative visits, church, etc.—are running, so to the extent that we can help to stop the spread of this virus and get those systems back online, we want to do that.
  • What is allowed locally and in the jurisdictions where kids are placed.

Those are just a few of the things we consider as we develop a plan to resume visits, also knowing that our plan will have to be flexible since things can change at a moment's notice. As soon as we know what resuming visits will look like, we will share that information with you. Stay tuned.

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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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