Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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D.C.’s child protective services agency does not currently have enough medical suppliesincluding masks, hand sanitizer, or glovesto provide to all the social workers who serve on the front lines of child welfare investigations, according to several emails outlining the Child and Family Services Agency’s response to the coronavirus, including one by agency director Brenda Donald sent Wednesday.

Though the agency has ordered these supplies, they are “delayed in shipping,” Donald told staff in an agency-wide email she sent on Wednesday morning. And while many departments within CFSA have been approved for telework, Child Protective Services employees who are tasked with investigating allegations of abuse have not, and are still required to make regular contact with familieseven without any protective gear.

To prevent a widespread outbreak of COVID-19, which the World Health Organization has designated a pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have cautioned against “close contact” between most people, which it has defined as being less than six feet apart. At any given time, Child Protective Services’ frontline social worker have as many as 12 cases open, if not more, and it’s not uncommon for a case to involve a family with five, six, or seven children. The children CFSA serves are overwhelmingly low-income black children from wards 7 and 8—three-quarters of CFSA’s clients live in these wards— and nearly half of them are less than 6 years old.

Speaking with City Paper, one Child Protective Services employee who asked to remain anonymous says that several colleagues in that department have underlying medical conditions that make contracting COVID-19 more dangerous. According to internal emails obtained by City Paper, social workers who say they don’t feel safe working under these conditions are expected to report to the agency’s human resources office to take administrative leave. If a social worker takes leave, his or her open cases would be redistributed among the remaining staff, exacerbating concerns about high case loads, the social worker says. 

This is a very unusual time in the world. And what we’re facing is totally unprecedented,” Donald tells City Paper. “We have put together plans and we have been communicating extensively with our staff, and are making adjustments as new information is provided.” On medical supplies, she says, “the whole country is struggling to get [them], and [they] are in short supply.” 

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This unprecedented turmoil is already taking its toll on workers. In the absence of receiving supplies from the agency, social workers have been messaging each other back and forth “begging for supplies,” the social worker says. In other email threads that included mid-level management, supervisors, and frontline workers, one employee wrote, “[social workers] need masks, gloves, and sanitizer – basic safety products.” 

“If you’re requiring people to go into dangerous situations, you need to provide them with the basic supplies to ensure their safety,” the social worker tells City Paper. “People are stressed, they’re strained, and now there’s this.”

One email sent from a mid-level manager to a handful of supervisors on Tuesday morning indicates that the agency is reporting the names of social workers who take leave due to medical concerns to Bowser’s office, a message that has caused distress among employees. (Donald tells City Paper that the mayor’s office has asked every agency to keep track of the aggregate number of employees who take leave, to make sure there are enough staff to perform essential functions, but that CFSA is not reporting any employee names to the mayor’s office. A spokesperson from the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser did not provide a comment by press time. City Paper will update this post if they do.)

“If staff are refusing to complete the requested task due to a medical related concern. [sic] Please have them reach out to HR for administrative leave. If the staff are refusing to complete the requested task please let me know. I forgot to indicate that when the call outs are reported this information goes to the mayor’s office. I’m not certain on the use of this information. However, I think it is important to know how many staff we have available,” the email from the mid-level manager reads. 

Frontline social workers at CFSA are represented by the Local 2401 chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. In yet another email obtained by City Paper, Wayne Enoch, AFSCME Local 2401 president, wrote on Tuesday that “last week, CFSA contacted the union to discuss what was going on. That meeting left several unanswered questions, which we are still requesting feedback about.”

Those questions include who is allowed to telework and take administrative leave, what supplies are available to staff “to ensure safe practices while in the office or field,” and how supplies will be distributed once they arrive.

In the agency-wide email she sent on Wednesday morning, Donald told staff that the agency already placed orders for a number of sanitary items, but did not specify a timeline for delivery. 

She also wrote that the agency is looking to secure an additional contract for more frequent cleanings of its Southeast D.C. headquarters, and has already cleaned its fleet of cars stationed offsite.

“Once CFSA received approval to begin purchasing supplies, our contracts and procurement administration immediately contacted vendors,” the email from Donald says. “Orders have been placed for gloves, individual bottles of hand sanitizer, tissues, and disinfecting wipes. We have received packages of tissue and a limited number of disinfectant wipes; all other items are delayed in shipping.”

The social workers, meanwhile, have to continue working as normal. The social worker who spoke with City Paper said that colleagues are operating with limited guidance about best safety practices.

“It’s been around for a little while now, it’s not like a brand new situation. Everyone knew it was happening. Everyone heard the transmissions were starting. As soon as you hear that, you know what’s coming to the U.S. with the amount of travel people do, with spring break,” the social worker says. “You know it’s coming, and you should start preparing then. D.C. government, in general, did not make efforts to prepare. It’s not just CFSA. And then at the last minute they’re scrambling.”

This post has been updated to include a statement from Brenda Donald.