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It has been 19 years since I felt this kind of stress at work. On September 11th in 2001, I remember bringing a teen, Mandy, to one of our group homes. I remember the terrified look in her eyes when the house parent met us in the driveway and said, “America is at war.”
We went into the house and were all glued to the television set, making it hard to go through the process of placement. Hours later, Mandy cried and begged me not to leave her there. I struggled with my feelings, too. I tried to comfort her and reassure her that she would be safe and at the same time regulate my own stress.
Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, our staff are blessed to have the technology for virtual sessions with our families. The process is called “telehealth.” We connect by computer, phone or tablet to keep our services active with our clients. Many of these families were already facing serious losses and struggles in their lives when COVID-19 flooded the environment. Challenges like death, family conflict, loss of relationships, unmanageable child behavior, financial hardships, depression and anxiety make this time really hard for both our families and our workers.
A few weeks back, I experienced much the same feeling I felt from 9/11. I was working with a family who was experiencing a great deal of grief and loss. While all the family was struggling, one of the members was severely depressed. The parents were concerned that their adolescent son might be suicidal after making comments to a friend. We arranged a virtual session (a video call), but he did not want to participate. In light of shelter-in-place standards, I had to ask myself, “Do I go there and jeopardize my safety as well as my family’s safety? Or do I continue with the virtual session and hope and pray that this child is okay?” I knew I would not be able to sleep that night with the last choice.
This was definitely an ethical dilemma that I never expected to face. I felt it impossible to do a suicide assessment without being able to talk personally with the teen, yet I had my own stressors about medical safety. So I had to balance their safety issues with mine. This included giving the family instructions before I came to their home about how to align the chairs and what precautions we would all take.
The visit with the family had a positive ending. We were able to create a plan that included more therapy and more time with a supportive parent. This family was very respectful in following safety measures regarding the COVID-19 virus and upon leaving I went through a regimen before entering my own home. In the end, we met the needs of the family and hopefully protected the health of both their family and mine. But there was another other issue I did not have to face with 9/11 which still concerns me today. Could I (or my staff when delivering basic needs) pick up the virus, not show symptoms, and pass this on to someone else? This continues to be a stressor in my thoughts each new day.
Many of our clients already had serious problems and grief before this crisis, making this unprecedented time even more complicated to navigate. For those of us who are accustomed to visiting families in person, moving to phone and virtual sessions is working – but it definitely is harder! Our social workers and therapists can’t help but take on some of the stresses each time they meet with children and families.
Still our staff attempt to use their best skills to reach out and “touch” families to meet their needs.
We are being flexible and making the best of our circumstances. Please pray for our staff as they strive even harder to make wise decisions and provide critical services in a very difficult time for all of us.
Pam Crawford is a Regional Director in the Central Texas region. As a licensed clinical social worker, she directs foster care and adoption programs as well as Child and Family, Single Parent Family, Transitional Living and Growing Together, an in-home visitation program for parents with children ages 0-5.