Child Protective Services preparedness leads to continuity of essential functions during H1N1
During pandemic planning efforts, emergency planners in Arizona prioritized Child Protective Services as an essential department and conducted a variety of preparedness activities to ensure that it could meet the needs of allegedly abused and neglected children. Preparedness activities included cross-training staff, identifying options for holding hearings and family visits while maintaining social distancing, and planning for alternate handling of hotline calls. During H1N1, many of these plans were put into action as staff held court hearings by phone and supervisors took on additional duties to ensure that services were provided in children's best interest.
Continuity of operations during an emergency is a particularly important aspect of planning for agencies that protect the safety and well-being of children. Prior to and during the H1N1 pandemic, much attention was focused on social distancing and continuity of operations measures to ensure that organizations could carry out their functions while minimizing risk of illness spread. In many instances, this involved identifying essential functions to preserve or redesign so that services would not be interrupted during an emergency.
Arizona's human services agency provides a variety of state services for many different populations, and it contracts with 14,500 agencies throughout the state. Based on a variety of factors, it chose to prioritize its Child Protective Services department in the event of an emergency. The department protects children alleged to be abused and neglected, and it also operates a hotline center where people can report abuse and neglect.
- Many Child Protective Services activities, such as abuse reporting and court hearings, are time sensitive and rely on the continuous efforts of staff and the legal system. Pandemic planners were concerned that H1N1-related illness or facility closure could jeopardize nascent or ongoing cases of abuse and neglect.
- Hearings and visitations often require staff to meet in person, and planners wanted to address the potential for risk of H1N1 transmission within the department and court system.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security required that all affiliated agencies establish a pandemic preparedness plan and appoint a pandemic influenza coordinator as part of their contracts, prioritizing agencies that worked directly with Child Protective Services.
The requirement applied to traditional planning strategies (eg, creating a pandemic preparedness plan) and also to human resources plans that prioritized services and trained employees throughout the agency to work for Child Protective Services. Pandemic planning took place as part of a multi-step process to prepare for continuity of the department's functions during an emergency, including:
- Reprioritizing functions to ensure that during a pandemic, resources could be devoted to critical tasks executed for Child Protective Services
- Identifying critical staff in Child Protective Services, as well as employees who could act in similar roles if critical staff became ill. Many administrative personnel were cross-trained to work in Child Protective Services, in part because they had already completed the necessary background check
- Developing plans to redeploy staff to office locations throughout Arizona, including moving trained staff from central offices to district offices and from administrative to program areas to ensure that time-sensitive work at the local level was completed
- Holding a tabletop exercise during which the agency trained staff from Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services to fill each other's roles, forward hotline calls to other designated centers, and reroute hotline calls to staff cell phones during periods when large numbers of essential staff are ill or unavailable
- Regional partnerships with state and county health departments, medical facilities, hospitals, and community partners allowed for a strong network of services available even during an emergency.
- A policy for ongoing communication with Child Protective Services contractors across the state gave the agency frequent opportunities to evaluate contractors' ability to respond to referrals and maintain services at different times.
- A continuity-of-operations planning workshop for court officials and Child Protective Services employees may have set the stage for putting plans into motion during H1N1.
- During H1N1, several Child Protective Services functions were carried out via phone and videoconference. For instance, the Tucson office worked with judges to conduct hearings by phone. Roles shifted somewhat due to this change in venue, with supervisors appearing for the phone hearings and caseworkers being assigned to fieldwork. Much of this capability was due to Child Protective Services' work with the court emergency coordinator to establish a system for conference calls and videoconferencing in the event of an emergency.
- Role flexibility also came into play during H1N1. When caseworkers were ill or unavailable, Child Protective Services supervisors attended court hearings and conducted necessary monthly visits to ensure child safety.
- Close planning and partnerships with the state health department ensured that the agency received necessary and timely communications during H1N1. The health department's Public Information Officer distributed H1N1 information and news on the agency's intranet and also sent relevant information to all of the agency's departments.