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DCYF staff limiting in-person interaction, working remotely throughout pandemic


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Nearly every agency in Rhode Island has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Gov. Gina Raimondo thanked several of those agencies for their continued service to the state during this unprecedented time, including the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

“Being on the frontlines as a social worker or caseworker in DCYF in the middle of this crisis is indescribably difficult, and you’re doing a terrific job,” Raimondo said. “You’re doing the best job that you can.”

Sean McFarland, a spokesperson for DCYF, said the department currently has 1,989 youth in their care and 1,527 foster families.

McFarland said due to HIPAA laws, the agency is unable to confirm whether any children and/or parents have tested positive for COVID-19.

“But in the event an individual were to test positive for COVID-19, the Department of Health would notify all individuals who had direct contact with the individual,” McFarland said.

He said the department is working swiftly in its response to COVID-19 and how it affects the children they serve, their families, and their staff members.

Over the past few weeks, the department has worked to provide “COVID-19 prevention and containment strategies” for foster families, children, and DCYF staff, according to McFarland.

The department has also allowed some providers to work remotely, as long as it doesn’t impact the quality of their work.

Kathy McElroy, president of SEIU Local 580, said some of her members are working for the DCYF remotely.

“The goal is not that every single person work remotely, but it’s that enough people work remotely that we can social distance,” McElroy explained.

McElroy, whose union represents 350 employees of DCYF, said she is most concerned about the child protective investigators and social workers, who are still required to work in the field.

“They have to be out there, face-to-face, in emergencies, with families. There’s a high possibility that they’re going to come in contact [with someone who has the coronavirus]. We need to make sure we have gowns, and gloves, and masks,” McElroy said.

McFarland said DCYF has taken deliberate steps to ensure anyone working in the office, or out in the field, is protected.

“We’ve also implemented COVID-19 pre-screening protocols when face-to-face visits are required (for example, for child protective investigations),” McFarland said in a statement.

McElroy said she has heard of possible exposure to COVID-19 within the DCYF system, but she said she has not been made aware of any confirmed cases of the virus among children, foster families, or staff. But, she said if there were any cases, proper steps would be taken to remedy the situation.

“If any of my members had direct contact with a positive [case], they would be quarantined,” she said.

McElroy estimates about 315 DCYF employees are currently working remotely. McFarland said many employees working remotely are using technology as much as possible to stay connected when in-person visitation isn’t an option.

Eyewitness News requested an interview with DCYF Acting Director Kevin Aucoin but were told he wasn’t available this week because he’s spearheading the department’s efforts during this coronavirus outbreak.

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