Ways to Safely Stay in Touch with Children: Guidance for Volunteers

Guidance for Volunteers from National CASA/GAL Association March 2020

WAYS TO SAFELY STAY IN TOUCH WITH CHILDREN

While we are making many resources available to state organizations and local programs, in the forefront of all of our minds is the welfare of the children we serve and our need to ensure they are well while at the same time balancing the health and safety of our volunteers. We are providing guidance on a number of program and volunteer functions in light of the coronavirus (COVID – 19), while at the same time know you will be following the direction you are receiving from your court, state CASA/GAL organization, child welfare agency and governing authority. This guidance below is not meant to take precedent over direction from these authorities.

In these changing times we want to offer guidance on volunteers communicating with children in an effective and safe way. The volunteer may still visit the child by taking certain steps to limit conduct. For example, the volunteer may go to the child’s residence and talk through the door or the window. The volunteer and the child may talk on the phone while looking at each other through the window.

While National CASA/GAL Standard (Standards for Local CASA/GAL Programs 2012 version - Standard 7.E.5.f.) for volunteers to visit the child in person with the child once every 30 days at a minimum, please be reminded that the standard also allows for an exception to this practice. During this time National CASA/GAL is encouraging programs to consider alternatives that will ensure the safety of children, volunteers and staff. 

ALTERNATIVES TO FACE-TO-FACE MEETINGS

Texting: If texting with a child, no confidential information that would disclose specifics about a child’s identity or the case should be discussed. Texting should be limited and during reasonable hours. Text conversations should not be deleted until after the case is closed. CASA/GAL volunteers should be aware that any messaging, texting, emailing may be discoverable by the court. Please be sure to review state laws and court rules to determine if text messaging is discoverable in court. Video Conferencing. CASA/GAL volunteers and staff may use video calls or online chat applications (such as Zoom, Messenger Kids, and FaceTime) to communicate with children.

Vdeo Conferencing: CASA/GAL volunteers and staff may use video calls or online chat applications (such as Zoom, Messenger Kids, and FaceTime) to communicate with children. 

We recommend the following best practices for video conferencing:

• Take the call from a private location with no other people around

• Ask the child if she or he is in a safe place with no others around

• Do not discuss private information about the child (as you do not know who is listening in)

• Do not record the chat (either audio or visual) Guidance for Volunteers:

 • All calls should be prefaced with a verbal disclosure agreement to verify the above parameters are met and agreed upon at the beginning of each call.

• Remember that confidentiality cannot be guaranteed when using video chat technology.

National CASA/GAL does not have an age restriction for use of video technology with children. However, the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act sets limits on the use of services like these, along with other Internet sites, by children under the age of 13. In order to comply with COPPA and industry standards, programs may adopt the following practices:

• Place the video call with the phone app on the smart phone. These video calls would not trigger the same COPPA issues as using a platform like FaceTime or Skype.

• Do not have children under 13 create user accounts (and do not create user accounts for them) with the video chat providers

• Do not otherwise provide any personal information about the children to the video chat provider (including through a text chat feature) • Choose technologies that permit use by children under 13 (Zoom, Messenger Kids, and FaceTime permit use, while Skype does not) Out of an abundance of caution, the program can seek an order from the court as follows:

• The Court authorizes video conferencing between the child and the CASA volunteer and staff and the court expressly grants consent for this child to use video conferencing technologies for these purposes.

Out of an abundance of caution, the program can seek an order from the court as follows:

• The Court authorizes video conferencing between the child and the CASA volunteer and staff and the court expressly grants consent for this child to use video conferencing technologies for these purposes.

Phone Calls. When talking to a child on the phone, the CASA/GAL volunteer must follow many of the same recommendations as with video chat technology including ensuring you are in a private location with no other people around, that there is no recording taking place, and that no confidential information that would disclose the specifics about a child’s identity or the case should be discussed.

CHILDREN IN CONGREGATE CARE

CASA/GAL volunteers should take extra precautions when meeting with children in group homes, emergency shelters and other congregate care placements. Precautions may include alternative to face-to-face meetings like texting, video conferencing and phone calls as well as remaining at a safe distance and following proper hygiene including handwashing for both the child and CASA/GAL volunteer. The CASA/GAL volunteer may wish to discuss proper handwashing, covering of the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and other safeguards with the child that may be particularly important in congregate care.

TRANSITIONING YOUTH AND YOUTH WITH CHILDREN During the COVID-19 crisis, youth in foster care who are in independent living and youth with children are especially vulnerable. These youth will need even more support if schools close and transition to virtual learning. Many youth in foster care rely on schools for meals and often do not have access to the internet or technology to support virtual learning. Helping youth and young parents to find community resources for food assistance, health care and helping them to identify ways to access virtual learning (such as libraries) will help them through this difficult time. Youth in foster care living independently also often work hourly as a requirement for housing. These youth will need advocacy and support should businesses close and the youth not be able to Guidance for Volunteers: Ways to Safely Stay in Touch with Children March 2020 | 3 protect their housing and access to assistance. Youth often also rely on cell phones. Helping them to advocate to keep their phones on should they not be able to pay their phone or other utilities is another way to support foster youth. Finally, ensuring that youth know where to access local health and safety resources will help ensure that our youth have the protection they need to weather this crisis.

COURT HEARINGS AND CHILD WELFARE MEETINGS CASA/GAL volunteers shall follow the precautions and procedures recommended by the court for all court hearings. The CASA/GAL program may wish to discuss with the court the ability for the CASA/GAL volunteer to appear telephonically in court if necessary. The same should hold true with child welfare meetings. If the agency has issued procedures concerning these meetings, the program and CASA/GAL volunteer should adhere to those procedures. If not, the CASA/GAL volunteer may wish to participate via conference call.