Mar 13 2020

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

Updated as of 12/23/20

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 are currently closed. Any updates to this will be added here.

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Effective 12/23/20: Child Visits & Meetings

Austin Public Health recently moved Austin/Travis County to Stage 5 of the COVID-19 Community Risk Guidelines. As a result, CASA of Travis County is temporarily suspending all in-person child visits except for those approved individually by the Chief Program Officer.

We will continue to monitor public health guidance daily and hope to resume our previous visitation protocols as soon as possible. As soon as we are able to do so, we will notify you. If you have any questions or believe that you need an exception to be able to see a child in-person due to imminent safety concerns, please contact your supervisor.

We ask that you continue more frequent virtual contact with children to whom you are appointed during the period in which we are unable to visit them in person. Thank you for your unwavering commitment to the children and families we serve. We know that changes to protocols can be frustrating and we appreciate everyone's flexibility as we navigate the pandemic.

Though no in-person contact is permitted at this time, we are allowing no-contact porch drop-offs of essential supplies to families. 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, 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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