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“It’s a tremendously difficult balancing act,” How Wisconsin DCF handles visits during the pandemic

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MADISON (WKOW) -- For children in foster care, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a new set of challenges.

Rachel Robertson has five kids in foster care. Before the pandemic, she says she kept up regular visits with her youngest daughter. But once the pandemic hit, Robertson says contact with her daughter became "challenging."

"When COVID happened all visits stopped," said Robertson. "To engage a one-year-old into a virtual visit was not easy."

Officials with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF) say dealing with child visits during the pandemic is a "tremendously difficult balancing act."

"We're trying to keep families, communities, and also our workers safe," said Wendy Henderson, Administrator for the Division of Safety and Permanence with Wisconsin DCF.

Henderson admits that the pandemic has been a challenge for their agency, especially when it comes to issuing guidelines.

"[At the beginning of the pandemic] we did provide a lot of guidance saying...all visits should be moves to virtual," said Henderson. "Then as it became clear that the Public Health guidance was changing that the virus wasn't going away we have had to change some of that guidance."

In a letter sent to foster parents in May, Wisconsin DCF advises "with some additional precautions, many children and families will be able to, and should, resume face-to-fact contact." However, the letter goes on to say, "there will continue to be circumstances specific to individuals and communities which may necessitate continued virtual contact to ensure the health and safety of children, parents, you and your family."

"There has always been some form of visitation some of that some of those visits have been virtual for a period of time. And some of the visits have continued in person. And some of that has really been dependent on the local contacts," said Henderson. "In any situation where there's a true present safety danger to the child...that always had to be done in-person and it continues to be done in-person."

As for the DCF caseworkers going door to door for in-person visits, Henderson says they're better prepared now than before.

"We are getting much better on Personal Protective Equipment gear and so most counties now do have access to that, but that was a significant barrier at the beginning of the pandemic," Henderson said.

As cases continue to surge in parts of Wisconsin, Henderson says it might make sense to move back to more virtual family interactions, rather than in-person. Those decisions will be made at the local level and on a case-by-case basis.

"If an individual family has really been limiting their interaction within the community, it might be easier for that family to be able to have some additional time in person with their child," said Henderson. "Whereas if a family has had a lot of contact with a lot of different people in the community, then that may be a slightly different story."

Robertson says she is pleased to spend time with her daughter in-person again and she tells 27 News that DCF is looking at reunification between the two in late August.

"I feel so lucky that I get to have [Jordan] in my life," she said.

For a list of COVID-19-related resources and guidance from Wisconsin DCF, visit their website.

Nick Buffo

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