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Opinion | COVID is pushing already-struggling child welfare agencies to the brink

As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan’s non-profit, accredited child welfare agencies are struggling and facing unprecedented challenges to serve children in need and Michigan families.

Judith Fischer Wollack
Judith Fischer Wollack is president of the Association of Accredited Child & Family Agencies. (Courtesy photo)

We are severely short-staffed, shouldering the cost of personal protective equipment for employees and children in our care, and are faced with ever-changing guidance and mandates that affect how we can offer our services.

As the president of the Association of Accredited Child & Family Agencies (AACFA), I am calling on our elected leaders to help us help the people who rely on us for care. Something must change, and we owe it to the thousands of children and families in our care to do better.

After all, the children and families we serve have already borne the brunt of the pandemic. If we truly care about those most in need, we must act.

AACFA is made up of some of the largest child welfare agencies in Michigan. Each year, we care for thousands of children who come to us from a wide variety of circumstances, from neglect and abuse to violence and the criminal justice system. We are also responsible for hundreds of adoptions and foster care placements annually.

Providing these services during the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely difficult, to say the least. Before the pandemic, non-profit child welfare agencies were already struggling with staffing shortages, as we cannot afford to pay our employees, who work directly with the children in our care, the same amount as state-run agencies.

The staffing shortage is just one of the issues exacerbated by the pandemic. Throughout the last two years, we’ve seen an exodus of employees who decided to take other jobs that put them at lower risk of violence or sickness. It’s not easy working for a child welfare agency – but the children and families of Michigan need us now more than ever.

Due to the lack of workers, we've had to sometimes provide our services virtually or close intakes altogether. This comes at a time when mental health struggles are at a critical peak, and children can spend days waiting in an emergency room for a psychiatric bed. Some children are grieving because COVID-19 has made them orphans.

To the children we serve, we are the emergency department. Our communities depend on us for a full continuum of services.

Some of our agencies have mandated vaccination against COVID-19 for employees. For those who have not been mandated, only a fraction of our employees across the board have elected to get vaccinated, and instead rely on weekly testing, for which we’ve also footed the bill. Testing and personal protective equipment amount to thousands of dollars a week for each of our agencies.

Providing a safe environment for our employees and the children in our care is our top priority. The high costs of working through this pandemic are taking a toll and pushing an already underfunded system to the brink.  

During this time, the state could help us by being more flexible in our staff-to-patient ratios. A temporary change could allow us to keep our doors open and continue helping children, while remaining in compliance with caseload requirements. It’ll be nearly impossible to keep our facilities open otherwise.

Without non-profit, accredited child welfare agencies, where will these children go? They will be left without resources, in abusive homes, in hospital emergency departments or on the streets. In short, they would have no safety net.

Non-profit, accredited child welfare agencies are that safety net, and we’re at a tipping point. We implore policymakers to support fair funding for our industry and treat us as true partners with a clear mission to serve the underserved and help families desperately in need.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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