Understanding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on families involved in the child welfare system: Technological capital and pandemic practice – Wiley

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Corresponding Author
Jordan B. Conrad
Department of Communication Studies, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
School of Social Work, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Jordan B. Conrad, 105 Becker Communication Building, University of Iowa, 25 South Madison St., Iowa City, IA 52245.
Email: jordan-conrad@uiowa.edu
Kate Magsamen-Conrad
Department of Communication Studies, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Holden Comprehensive Care Center, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Corresponding Author
Jordan B. Conrad
Department of Communication Studies, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
School of Social Work, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Jordan B. Conrad, 105 Becker Communication Building, University of Iowa, 25 South Madison St., Iowa City, IA 52245.
Email: jordan-conrad@uiowa.edu
Kate Magsamen-Conrad
Department of Communication Studies, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Holden Comprehensive Care Center, University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
Funding information: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Grant/Award Number: R24HD050959; BGSU Center for Family and Demographic Research; BGSU Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development
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Child-welfare practices transformed drastically in 2020 after governments instituted quarantining and social-distancing measures. Child visitation, mental health evaluations and treatment, and court hearings either ceased or only accessible via information communication technologies (ICTs). Peer-reviewed published scholarship about technology use in child welfare is limited to voluntary, supplemental contexts and insufficient to understand the nuanced effects of this transition on vulnerable populations. We used a critical case study ethnography to name this phenomenon, ‘pandemic practice’, and describe how case-management challenges were compounded and/or masked by pandemic practice. Mandatory ICT use in case management contributed to injustices for some families in the child-welfare system, including children spending extended time in foster care, families receiving superficial treatment services and irreparable harm to timely case progression. We used technology adoption theory and technological capital framework to identify and understand the complexities of pandemic practice beyond a simple digital divide perspective. We present a hierarchy of technological capital necessary to participate in pandemic practice, suggestions to create sufficient capital and implications for policy and practice.
CPS agencies serve some of the most vulnerable children and families worldwide, working to ensure their safety, permanency and well-being. In January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak a global health emergency (Fauci et al., 2020). By mid-March 2020, COVID-19 had reached pandemic level, triggering a worldwide response from governments (Cathey, 2020). In the United States, states began enforcing widespread shut downs, including the closures of state and local government operations. Among some of those early government closures were child protective service (CPS) agencies.
According to the US Administration for Children and Families (2018), 3.5 million American children have contact with CPS agencies annually. Up to 437,000 children were in foster care in the United States at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2020). Although some CPS agencies have seen an overall drop in new child abuse and neglect (CA/N) complaints since the pandemic (Welch & Haskins, 2020), CPS agencies still serve a large portion of the US population.
In response to the government closures, CPS functions in many jurisdictions either temporarily ceased, or rapidly shifted towards remote delivery of services (Merritt & Simmel, 2020). Online case practice necessitates the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) to facilitate communication between CPS participants. ICTs are ‘a diverse set of technological tools and resources used to communicate, and to create, disseminate, store, and manage information’ (Blurton, 1999, p. 46). ICTs encompass both the hardware (e.g. computer) and the software (e.g. Zoom) necessary to enable communication between two or more parties.
Although ICT adoption is frequently considered pervasive, adoption and efficacious use are not well-understood among vulnerable populations (Magsamen-Conrad & Dillon, 2020). However, evidence suggests that mandatory ICT adoption exacerbates disparities among marginalized populations. Individuals must have sufficient technological capital to use ICTs. Technologically undercapitalized individuals are unable to participate in the system. Further, individuals who have technological capital also tend to enjoy digital privilege (Magsamen-Conrad & Dillon, 2020) and from this privilege misattribute reasons for noncompliance.
Researchers have explored ICT use in a child-welfare context (e.g. Tregeagle, 2011). However, little existing research examines the unique circumstances that CPS agencies face during a global pandemic. Demanding participation through ICTs without the provision of technological capital has the potential to further marginalize populations who are already vulnerable. We investigated the shift to ICT use in CPS case-practice during the pandemic, naming the components of ‘pandemic practice’. We used a multi-theoretical framework to understand how the structural factors that link the economic, social, and political potential inherent in ICT adoption affect families’ ICT use. We then described the impact that pandemic practice had on the safety, permanency, and well-being of children and families.
CPS agencies integrated ICTs as early as the late 1980s, when ICTs were used primarily as a tool to ensure agency compliance with state and federal regulatory requirements (LaMendola, 2011). ICT use expanded in scope as technology became more available and acceptable in social-work practice. Today, ICTs have an increasing presence in CPS practice. As ICT use in CPS welfare practice increased, scholars identified a number of benefits and challenges to case practice.
ICTs can increase participation for individuals who struggle to engage with traditional face-to-face (FtF) services due to geographical limitations (Ahmendani et al., 2011), and employment-related issues (Reamer, 2013). Berzin et al. (2015) suggest that using ICTs in treatment settings allows for highly tailored, and self-paced interventions. ICTs can allow CPS-involved families to initiate communication, and can link families to a larger community (Tregeagle, 2011). Using a snowball sample in an online survey, Sage and Sage (2016) found that a majority of CPS caseworkers believed that social-media use helped families meet their case goals.
The challenges of ICT use in casework are underrepresented in existing literature. This research explores issues related to the ethics (Cooner et al., 2020), security, and privacy (Zhang & Gutierrez, 2007) of communication between CPS caseworkers and the families they serve via ICTs (see Tregeagle, 2016). In an opinion piece, Tregeagle (2011) warns CPS workers that ICTs have the potential to distort communication, increase deception, and lead to the exploitation of service users. Importantly, existing research describes ICT use in exclusively voluntary or supplemental contexts. When ICT use become mandatory, practitioners must consider the potential for digital inequities.
Social scientists and policy makers have expressed concern about the ‘digital divide’ and the potential social impact of digital inequities since the mid-1990s (Anderson et al., 1995). Early research focused almost exclusively on issues related to unequal access to technology infrastructure (e.g. broadband internet), hardware (e.g. personal computers) and software/applications (apps) (e.g. Facebook, DiMaggio et al., 2004). Technology adopter attitudes (Choi & DiNitto, 2013; Stellefson et al., 2008), and ability (Magsamen-Conrad et al., 2020) also introduce digital inequalities. Specific to social work, Tregeagle and Darcy (2008) encouraged CPS caseworkers to consider how a family’s ICT preference may limit service options, thus increasing the digital divide. Others suggested that access, affordability and penetration of ICTs can influence casework practice in ways that further marginalize disadvantaged groups (Steyaert & Gould, 2009).
Unfortunately, existing scholarship in social work tends to be atheoretical, anecdotal, outdated, lacking a deep systematic understanding of ICT use and adoption, and/or fails to provide evidence-based solutions—a perennial problem in this area of study across disciplines. Carlson and Isaacs (2018) suggest that a majority of the existing digital-divide research has primarily functioned as an indicator of the existence of digital inequalities but has not been particularly useful in identifying the descriptive components or factors of digital inequity. The benefits and challenges of ICTs identified by social-work scholars strongly parallels this research in health-information technology adoption (see Senteio & Magsamen-Conrad, 2021, for review). Thus, a technological capital framework (Carlson & Isaacs, 2018), as applied by Magsamen-Conrad’s research team (e.g. Magsamen-Conrad & Dillon, 2020) and informed by the unified theory of acceptance and use of technology (UTAUT; Venkatesh et al., 2003) provides these elements missing from existing research.
Carlson and Isaacs (2018) founded their framework in capital-based approaches such as those proposed by Bourdieu (1984, 1986, and 2005) that examine the accumulative effects that social interaction has on individuals’ acquisition of cultural and social capital. They extended capital-based models by considering how individuals acquire social capital through an accumulated history with and through technological resources (Carlson & Isaacs, 2018). Technological capital, as interpreted by Magsamen-Conrad and colleagues (e.g. Glowacki et al., 2021; Magsamen-Conrad & Dillon, 2020), is applicable to CPS practice during the COVID-19 pandemic because it describes the social, political and economic factors that influence the use of ICTs to facilitate communication, moving beyond one-dimensional conceptualizations of access.
Carlson and Isaacs (2018) propose that individuals develop technological capital through the accumulation of four factors: awareness, knowledge, access and social networks. These factors are similar to the major predictive variables in UTAUT (Venkatesh et al., 2003; see also Glowacki et al., 2021). Awareness includes recognizing the technological innovation and its potential value in social use. Knowledge includes the information needed to use an innovation for the intended purpose. Elements of these concepts are captured in UTAUT concepts of experience, performance expectancy and effort expectancy. Access considers factors such as location, technology penetration and potential barriers such as cost. Social network capacity describes how an individual’s social network (e.g. friends, family and co-workers) influences how they appraise an innovation and if they use and adopt it. Elements of these concepts are captured in UTAUT concepts of experience, social influence and facilitating conditions. UTAUT adds an important adoption component relevant to the CPS context: voluntariness. Thus, the technological capital + UTAUT framework can be particularly useful for understanding how the shifting of FtF to online case practice affected families involved with CPS.
The following exploratory research questions guided this project: How did child-welfare case practice change during the pandemic? How and why were ICTs integrated into case practice? What is technological capital in this context, and how did insufficient technological capital affect the child-welfare system?
This project represents a selective yet descriptive accounting of one state’s child-welfare practices from roughly the beginning of March 2020 through August 2020. We used a critical-case case study approach (Patton, 2015) to develop a deeper understanding of CPS practice during the pandemic, particularly as related to ICT use. Critical-case case study was the most appropriate method for this project because of the bounding constraints of the pandemic (e.g. time) and the insular nature of child-welfare systems (e.g. CPS cases are not public). A critical-case case study is context-dependent, meaning is understood in relation to the referenced event (e.g. pandemic; Patton, 2015).
To ensure that our analysis was representative of state-wide case practice, we conducted interviews with supervisors from five different CPS district offices within the same agency over the summer of 2020. Each supervisor monitored six to eight caseworkers, whereas each caseworker carries up to 12 cases at a time. We used a snowball-sampling method to recruit the CPS supervisors. All of the supervisors identify as female, hold a masters of social work degree and have 14–24 years of CPS experience (M = 17). One supervisor self-identified as Latina, two as Caucasian, one as Afro-Caribbean and one as Black.
The authors’ IRB approved this study. Each participant was emailed a copy of the informed consent before interviewing. Interviewees signed the consenting document electronically and emailed it to the first author. Each participant also provided verbal consent before the interview. The first author conducted phone interviews. Interviews were free flowing and conversational in nature. Interviews ranged from 60 to 80 min (M = 72 min).
We used an interview guide (Patton, 2015) with two parallel lines of questioning to help provide structure for the interview. One line of questioning explored factors that contributed to the ensuing case practice during the pandemic (e.g. socio-political and economic) and differences between pre- and post-pandemic case practice. The second line of questions used a deductive approach in which the researcher focused the conversation towards examining the four theoretical components of technological capital (Carlson & Isaacs, 2018). We integrated these factors into the questions we asked each participant (e.g. do you think parents/workers/etc. are aware of, know how to use technology? Who do you think influenced parents’/workers’/etc. tech use).
Protecting the identity of the participants in this study was of utmost concern. By sharing their stories with us, these individuals willingly exposed themselves to potential legal, personal and professional sanctions. Thus, we enacted a number of controls designed to shield our participants from identification. We limited the number of participants, relying on interviewees’ cumulative years of experience, and the perspective they had from direct and indirect interactions with as many as 120 families each at any given time during the pandemic (~600 families). We used pseudonyms to identify participants. We did not use audio-recording devices to capture the content of the phone interviews because of the privacy and anonymity concerns our participants shared. Instead, we used an alternative IRB approved protocol documenting interviews through field notes. We placed special emphasis on documenting verbatim quotes throughout the interviews. We reviewed interview notes at the conclusion of each interview and then completed expanded field notes. Finally, we use descriptive terminology in lieu of any idiosyncratic or colloquial terms our participants used that might inadvertently identify a specific agency, state and/or location. The descriptive substitutions do not alter the data in any way that would influence the findings of this study.
To centre our understanding of child-welfare practice and the role that ICTs play in that environment, we contextualized our analysis through two distinct ethnographies. We lean primarily on the first author’s complete member ethnography (CME, Toyosaki, 2011) in child-welfare practice and policy to add detailed description and to ‘offer culturally intimate and proximate interpretations’ of our data (p. 64). The first author’s CME allows us to provide context to child-welfare practice, particularly as compared to post-pandemic case practice. We also utilized the second author’s 6-year, 15-wave participant-observer ethnography related to intergenerational digital inequalities (Magsamen-Conrad & Dillon, 2020; Magsamen-Conrad et al., 2013, 2016) to understand technology use and adoption.
We used Asmussen and Creswell’s (1995) layered analysis approach to understand the case practice narratives our interviewees provided. A layered analysis allows researchers to organize emergent themes from basic to more advanced (Kandasamy & Habil, 2018). In the first layer of analysis, we examined how court and direct service provision and family monitoring function in child welfare before and during the pandemic. This contextual information is necessary to understand how case-practice changed and the impact that change had on children and families. We used technological capital and UTAUT as sensitizing frames in our second layer of analysis to understand and explain the differential experiences of children and families after ICT adoption in child-welfare case practice. Layered analysis begins by identifying themes within the data. We each independently conducted a thematic analysis on the expanded-interview field notes (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), followed by a layered analysis, and then we convened to discuss and reconcile thematic differences.
Finally, we sent the final manuscript to our participants in order to ensure that our interpretations, analysis, and findings accurately reflect our interviewees’ experiences. In qualitative inquiries, member checking serves as a means to maintain validity (Candela, 2019). Our interviewees did not report any concerns with our representation of the interviews.
We USE the phrase ‘pandemic practice’ to name the child-welfare procedures that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. As casework rapidly shifted from FtF to remote delivery through ICTs, pandemic practice fundamentally changed what it meant to interact with, and within, CPS. We organize our findings around two central components of the child-welfare system: court and direct service provision and family monitoring. First, we describe the function of these components within the state agency. Then, we describe pandemic practice, juxtaposing it with pre-pandemic practice. Finally, we describe the impact that pandemic practice had on children and families.
Courts serve an important role in the child-welfare system in support of the safety, permanency and well-being of children and their families. Court involvement can extend across many years, for example, in the most severe cases of child maltreatment. Court involvement can include day-to-day oversight, for example, approval of out-of-state travel with foster parents. Finally, courts become the arbitrator in permanently terminating the caregiver/child relationship when children cannot safely return to their family of origin. Courts operate independently from CPS agencies and are often responsible for ensuring that caregivers receive due process, while simultaneously providing a check and balance on CPS decision making and authority.
In March 2020, court hearings for child-welfare cases in our participants’ jurisdiction went from a primarily in-person to a completely remote format. From March 2020 to present, all CPS court hearings, from petitions for emergency removal to adoption finalizations, were, and still are, facilitated through videoconferencing (e.g. Skype and Zoom). Additionally, the physical courtrooms were, and are, closed to both the public and court staff.
Remote appearance in court is not unprecedented. Individuals are entitled to ‘appear’ in court on matters involving children to whom they have a legal right (e.g. incarcerated parents participated remotely before COVID-19). During pandemic practice, all relevant parties attended using ICTs, including but not limited to judges, lawyers, CPS caseworkers, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), guardian ad litem, families of origin and caregivers. As explained by Supervisors 4 and 3 respectively, ‘… judges were conducting court from their kitchen table’, ‘Nobody was in the same place, parents and their attorneys weren’t even together’. Supervisor 5 added that by late summer 2020 ‘… parents would appear through their attorney … they would call their attorney and be on the phone with them, who in turn appeared through Zoom’. In mid-May 2021, we contacted participants and confirmed that virtual CPS court hearings persist, with the exception of termination hearings.
Our participants described three primary ways that the transition from in-person to virtual court affected case progression: showing up, technicalities and timely progression.
Showing up at court hearings is mandatory for parents involved in the CPS system. Our interviewees described several ways that people ‘showed up’ for court differently during pandemic practice. Although some of the ways that showing up for virtual court were benign (e.g. from the kitchen table), others appeared more malignant. For example, several interviewees described how courts entered default judgments against parents who failed to appear in virtual court. For example, Supervisor 2 described how the change from in-person to virtual court affected parents’ engagement and involvement with court hearings: ‘Parents had to have emergency removal hearings on Zoom, sitting outside of McDonalds. We had other parents who missed their termination [of parental rights] hearings … Their rights were terminated because they were a no-show for their Zoom hearing’.
courts were still trying to figure out how to do Zoom court … somewhere along the way, someone missed something … an important document, an important filing deadline, something that would not have been an issue in person, but the court had to overturn a finalized adoption to correct the error. I don’t know exactly what happened, legally speaking, but it caused a lot anxiety for the kiddos and their adoptive parents. Whatever happened, it was fixed fairly quickly, but still … it wasn’t a good situation.
Finally, remote court delayed the timely progression of caregivers’ cases through the system. For example, federally mandated timelines dictate case progression for children in foster care (e.g. 15/22 provision of the Adoption and Safe Families Act [ASFA]). Prior to March 2020, case progression in our interviewee’s jurisdiction was predictable and timely. This all changed during pandemic practice. ‘We are blowing our ASFA requirements for our kiddos in [foster] care’ (Supervisor 1). CPS agencies enacting pandemic practice were unable to meet families’ service needs, resulting in extra time in placement for children.
Courts often mandate direct services (e.g. assessment and treatment) at the recommendation of CPS to ensure the safety, permanency and well-being of children. Case managers monitor adherence to these recommendations (family monitoring). Prior to the onset of the pandemic, a majority of direct services and their monitoring occurred through FtF interactions. These elements of casework are deeply interwoven, making it difficult to disentangle individual threads of each without destroying the entire tapestry of case practice. Thus, we describe them together.
Case-management includes coordinating care, monitoring treatment services, assessing safety and risk, advocating for children and families, and case planning. Additionally, caseworkers must maintain contact with all household members within strict month statutory requirements for in-person, FtF contact. The number of required FtF monthly visits, known as monthly visitation requirements (MVR), is based on an assessment of risk factors in the home. Caseworkers visit low-risk homes approximately once a month and high-risk homes three to four times a month. Finally, CPS agencies also rely on information from collateral contacts (e.g. police), and treatment progress reports from direct service providers to monitor the safety, permanency and well-being of children and their families.
Case documentation is a primary task in CPS casework. CPS provides individual desktop computers, email addresses and basic cellular phones to all caseworkers and supervisors in our participants’ jurisdiction to facilitate case monitoring. Caseworkers interface with case-management software, State Automated Child Welfare Information System (SACWIS), to document all information pertaining to every CPS case. SACWIS are federally-funded case management tools used by CPS agencies to organize case practice reporting. Direct service and monitoring during pandemic practice included absence of services, superficial services and adequacy of remote monitoring.
Substance abuse evaluations, there is no way that they can be done remotely … not since those evaluations require a drug screen [biological specimen]. The SAEs [substance abuse evaluators] could make contact with our parents and interview them on the phone, but the drug screens are central for making an evaluation and recommendations.
She added, ‘psych[ological] evals have stopped completely. Our providers will not do them over the phone or Zoom because of HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] stuff’.
Basically between March and July we weren’t doing in-person parent–child visits or sibling visits … we tried phone calls or Zoom visits, but it’s not the same. Kids need that physical contact with their parents to maintain their emotional connection with their parents while in placement. Parents need that physical contact with their children to maintain their hope … hope for reunification.
Finally, pandemic practice challenged the adequacy of remote monitoring. Our interviewees described how caseworkers were not able to adequately assess risk and safety within the circumstances created by the pandemic. Our participants described this pandemic practice (e.g. monthly child and family contacts were being completed through videoconferencing software, or via phone) and how it negatively affected casework. Supervisor 5 discussed an investigation that was conducted through a ring doorbell, ‘since we couldn’t do interviews face to face, we had no idea if there was someone in the background telling the kids what to say’. One supervisor described how one mother was able to avoid CPS monitoring by ‘intentionally’ not participating through a technological platform. Interviewees noted the limitations that digital interactions have on overall case monitoring. Other interviewees expressed frustration with the inability to obtain collateral contacts from providers, further complicating their overall ability to monitor a family during the pandemic.
Our participants detailed two ways that remote delivery and monitoring affected case practice: case damage and reimagined case practice.
Just before Corona hit, we had a family that we had serious concerns for. We did a safety plan, put in FPS [family preservation services; intensive in-home family treatment] … they [caseworkers] were going out daily to work with the family, doing whatever they could to keep the kids safely in the home. And then, just like that, everything collapsed. FPS couldn’t go out anymore … the family had no way of getting services … the family lasted maybe two days, and then we were out there again [the families house]. At that point there was nothing else we could do, we had to do a removal.
We had a mom that was maybe a month away from completing her drug treatment program. She made amazing progress between the time she lost her children up to when COVID hit, and then everything closed. Her case just stopped, she couldn’t complete her programming, visits with her children stopped. All the closures just stacked more barriers for reunification on top of her.
The stories our interviewees told highlight the ways in which service disruptions caused by the pandemic impacted the safety and permanency goals of some families in the child-welfare system.
Finally, our participants described reimagined case practice. Our interviewees expressed optimism that pandemic practice would create opportunities for workers to refine or learn new social-work skills. For instance, when asked to think about how long-term case practice might change, Supervisor 3 stated, ‘[caseworkers] would have to get back to their social work roots, they have to find new ways to work with and engage families’. Supervisor 4 provided similar insights, saying ‘my workers have had to rethink how they approach families from a strengths-based approach, we have to help clients build their formal and informal supports, guide them to find ways to lean on their families for help’.
In the second layer of analysis, we use technological capital and UTAUT as sensitizing frames to interpret and re-interpret our participants’ stories and our findings.
Carlson and Issacs (2018) conceptualize awareness as a process by which an individual identifies and seeks information about a technological innovation and evaluate the perceived benefit of adoption (see experience and performance expectancy in UTAUT). When asked about awareness, our interviewees conjectured that most professionals involved with the child-welfare system possessed a baseline awareness of ICTs and the potential benefits of their use in case practice. Supervisor 2 noted, ‘I think that all of the professionals … the service providers, the court staff … they all know what different technology is available, how it can help’.
Our interviewees were less confident in their appraisal of clients’ awareness. Supervisor 1 said, ‘I think probably most of our parents know about different technology, they probably know how to video chat. They might not use what we were trying to use …. yeah like Zoom, but they know about things like Facetime or Skype’. Some of our interviewees attributed lack of awareness to demographics. Supervisor 5, for example, echoed the others’ impressions related to awareness but added, ‘I would say though, that some of our older foster parents probably are not as aware about technology. I know we had a few older foster parents that didn’t know what Zoom was’.
Carlson and Issacs (2018) describe knowledge as the information required to use an innovation for its intended purpose. Other frameworks describe this phenomenon as experience (e.g. UTAUT, Venkatesh et al., 2003) or technology literacy (Glowacki et al., 2021). Regardless of the naming conventions, this concept is central to functioning within a technological system, and CPS was no exception. In particular, supervisors described how insufficient knowledge manifested as a barrier to adequate case-management. Insufficient knowledge affected the broader CPS ecosystem through two primary routes: professional and client.
Once everything shut down, we [supervisors] were responsible for generating a bunch of different financial and legal approvals, which were usually the responsibility of clerical staff. I’ve seen them do it before, but I had no idea what I was doing. Early in the process we had foster parents that weren’t getting their initial clothing checks [used to purchase clothing for foster children] and Medicaid [health insurance] cards for weeks because us supervisors had no idea what to do.
Clients lacked the knowledge necessary to use ICTs during pandemic practice. Supervisors explained how clients’ lack of knowledge hindered CPS workers’ ability to perform basic case-management practices, including CA/N investigations.
A lot of our parents don’t have internet at home. Most of our parents use their smartphones to access the internet, or some other public access location. A lot of our parents use pre-paid phones and can only access the internet through wifi.
Thus, our analysis reveals how the nuanced intersection of access manifests in a bureaucratic system. That is, even as one element of technological capital was provided, others continued to suppress case-management. For example, Supervisor 4 noted, ‘We were able to purchase the family an iPad so they could continue services, but the State [policy] would not allow us to get the family internet service, or a hotspot to use with the iPad’.
Insufficient technological capital in terms of access created situations that threatened clients’ privacy and subjected them to stigma. For example, Supervisor 2 explained how the dependency on public internet access created situations that forced parents to participate in removal hearings in public settings (via zoom). Putting this private, emotional experience on public display is unfair.
Similar to knowledge, insufficient access affected CPS workers as well as clients. Supervisor 2 stated, ‘I was surprised to find out that a few of my investigators did not have a home computer or internet’. Again, systems attempted, and failed, to provide the necessary technological capital. Participant 5 explained that all of the after-hour and on-call investigators ‘were issued laptops so they could do their work … the State said everyone would get laptops, but that never happened’. CPS workers’ insufficient technological capital manifested in terms of both hardware and software and further complicated casework. Supervisor 1 explained, ‘workers that used their own computers at home had to download [SACWIS] onto their computer. Since workers were now working from home, they took administrative rights away within [SACWIS] for certain functions for workers. Now, supervisors were the only ones that could do a background check, it slowed everything way down’.
An individual’s social network affects their use, adoption, and perceived benefit of a technology (Carlson & Isaacs, 2018). Most existing technology-adoption theory articulates how friends and family members’ technology use and adoption affects individual’s related adoption decisions. For instance, UTAUT purports that individuals adopt a technology because they see members of their social network adopt an innovation. Our interviewees described social network capacity in terms of clients’ interactions with their caseworker rather than within clients’ social networks, and our findings emerge from this previously unexplored context.
In more traditional relational contexts, relational power plays a significant role in a pressured adoption process; those with less relational power accommodate to the technological preferences of those with more power. Social networks may pressure individuals to adopt ICTs for relational maintenance purposes (e.g. adopt Facetime to stay connected with distant family members) described by Magsamen-Conrad et al. (2020) as pressured voluntary adoption. In mandatory adoption contexts (e.g. organizational technology adoption), individuals with less power (employees) accommodate. In both instances, the social network influencing the adoption decision is assumed responsible for providing facilitating conditions for adoption. That is, the entity mandating adoption has the capacity to facilitate adoption.
These norms transformed in context of ICT use in child welfare. Our interviewees described instances where families refused to adopt the preferred ICT of their caseworker. In this sense, CPS caseworker had to accommodate the ICT adoption preference of the family, even though the case worked has more power in this relationship, perhaps because CPS did not have the capacity to facilitate adoption. The disruption of power was further complicated by bureaucratic procedures that are uncommon in personal and organizational adoption scenarios. For instance, Supervisor 1 recalled, ‘One family would only use Whatsapp … we had to get special approval so that the worker could download the app to communicate with the family’.
One family only had an Obama phone … the mom was not about to give us her phone number so we could follow up with her later … she refused to use any form of technology so that we could keep in touch with her, we always had to go back through messaging her mother if we needed her.
Supervisor 4 expanded by suggesting that the mother could have adopted a variety of ICT platforms to make the communication process easier but instead asserted her own autonomy in the case-management process by not adopting a different ICT. Supervisor 4 concluded, ‘… it’s not uncommon for parents to make it difficult to monitor them, but it’s become easier now that everything is done remotely’.
It came direct from the Commissioner that if you were not willing to come to the office to work, or you did not take your computer home to work, or you did not go get your own computer and internet to work from home, it was time to look for a new job. The Commissioner was tired of hearing excuses about not having a computer to do your job.
CPS workers were unable to rely on the agency’s capacity. Supervisor 2 summarized that, ‘eventually that workers had to go buy a computer and get internet installed so they could get back to work’. When this phenomenon is described in organizational research in UTAUT, it is the organization that requires the adoption and provides the ICT. During pandemic practice, child-welfare workers were expected to use their own personal capital to satisfy the demands of their organization.
The COVID-19 pandemic compounds some of the difficulties that our most vulnerable populations face. For children and families involved in the child-welfare system, these difficulties are exacerbated by the reliance on ICTs to access services. Tregeagle (2011) describes ideal ICT use as supplemental or part of a larger professional relationship that includes FtF interactions. In pandemic practice, ICTs became the principle means for participating in the child-welfare system, necessitating new research to understand ICT use in social work.
ICT use can be beneficial in the delivery of social service to individuals, families and institutions. However, the benefits afforded through the use and adoption of ICTs necessitate technological capital. Societal understanding of technological capital is often interpreted through a position of digital privilege. Like other forms of privilege, digital privilege describes the societal level benefits afforded to the individuals who have the skills and tools necessary to participate in a digital environment, over those individuals whom do not have such skills or tools (Magsamen-Conrad & Dillon, 2020). That is, individuals with digital privilege are often unable to accurately determine technological capital sufficiency, and inadvertently introduce digital inequalities. This phenomenon is particularly dangerous when using technology is a mandatory prerequisite to satisfy requirements set forth by a government agency.
Our interviews with CPS supervisors revealed how marginalized individuals continue to be disadvantaged in a digital environment. Families with inadequate technological capital had few options for cooperating with CPS during pandemic practice. Although causal relationships cannot be substantiated using this methodology, the stories our interviewees shared illustrate the devastating implications that technological undercapitalization (Glowacki et al., 2021) can have on children and their families. We propose that technological capital, at least in the context of a global health pandemic, has become a basic human necessity. We cannot speak directly for the parents whose stories were highlighted by our interviewees. However, our finding that pandemic practice left undercapitalized families with little to no options for engaging in services reached overwhelming saturation. This absence disabled some families’ ability to maintain a safe home, delayed permanency for children, and compromised the well-being of families.
Like other basic needs (e.g. see Maslow’s hierarchy), technological capital should be seen as a pathway through which other human needs are met. We suggest that for individuals whom are perpetually and systematically undercapitalized, meeting higher order needs (e.g. psychological needs) begins with building technological capacity, especially in an almost exclusively remote child-welfare environment. In recognizing technological capital as a basic need, CPS workers should acknowledge how their case-practice decisions can either enhance or hinder a client’s ability to participate in a remote environment, work to actively recognize their digital privilege and how it affects their interpretation of clients’ desire to comply, and create pathways to build capital.
CPS agencies cannot ignore the realities of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, shifting role of ICTs, and the subsequent impact on children involved in the system and their families. Epidemiologists suggest that we could experience COVID-19 disruptions well into 2022 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2020). CPS agencies need to create short- and long-term strategies for reducing ICT-enacted barriers related to accessing services, maintaining connections with children and participating in court services. The theory-driven findings from our study highlight the nuanced ways some families may become disadvantaged in remote environments and also provide potential solutions.
Child-welfare practitioners must partner with families to understand the layers of technological capital necessary to engage in every requirement of case-management. For example, in order to participate in virtual court, individuals must have a strong, fast internet connection, hardware (e.g. laptop and smartphone) and software (e.g. Zoom), in addition to sufficient knowledge to operate each of these elements. Practitioners must operate from the assumption that individuals do not have the technological capital necessary to participate efficaciously, should not have to bear the stigma of admitting that they have access and/or knowledge and often would not possess enough awareness and/or knowledge to articulate the missing elements of technological capital.
CPS agencies can reduce barriers for families involved in the child-welfare system by providing tangible (e.g. hardware and software) and intangible (e.g. related policy change) support. For instance, Supervisor 4 noted that her office was able to provide an iPad to a client. However, she also indicated that policy prevented the agency from providing the internet services necessary to utilize that tablet to the client. Thus, child-welfare administrators should examine and rectify policy that prevents their agencies from meeting the layered technological needs of their clients. Such changes may not be politically and/or logistically feasible in the long-term; however, agencies should adopt temporary protocols that consider the emergency needs of their families.
One potential solution is creating a space at the CPS office that includes all the technological capital necessary to fulfil CPS requirements safely and privately. Much research corroborates that these type of ‘facilitating conditions’ (Venkatesh et al., 2003) improve technology adoption and acceptance. Magsamen-Conrad’s technological capital extension provides additional guidance.
ICT awareness, knowledge, access and social network capacity influence both families’ and caseworkers’ ability to function in digital spaces. To build capacity, CPS agencies must also assess individuals’ ICT literacy and comfort, infrastructure (e.g. differential hardware-based affordances) and information security, and adoption willingness. Extensions of knowledge, access, and social network capacity, respectively (Glowacki et al., 2021), are central to building lasting capital. One policy solution we propose is the use of an in-agency technology liaison trained to recognize and provide support across all domains of technological capital. Changing/creating policy to provide and build technological capital will facilitate children and families’ engagement in ongoing remote delivery. Additionally, technological capacity building will better equip vulnerable populations to operate successfully in an increasingly ‘technology mandatory’ society (Magsamen-Conrad & Dillon, 2020).
Our findings should be considered within the scope and the limitations of this study. First, our findings represent a glimpse into a much larger system and process. Our participants were all supervisors, thus, our findings reflect the viewpoint of a single set of actors within a much larger system. Future research should examine pandemic practice from the perspective of caseworkers, foster parents, and families. Further, our findings represent a single state. Case practice, court and direct service provision and family monitoring may have unfolded differently across other CPS agencies and jurisdictions. Finally, future research might consider how user experiences differ across ICTs to extend our research.
Existing theoretical and conceptual models of digital inequality enable understanding of the rapidly changing landscape of CPS practice. We used professional connections and author expertise (child welfare and digital inequality, respectively) to understand some of the changes in child-welfare case practice, and then interpreted within a technological capital framework. We provide detailed description of aspects of ‘pandemic practice’, and the direct and indirect effect it may have on safety, permanency and well-being. The primary contributions of this study include identifying the nuanced layers of technological capital necessary for one to be able to participate in remotely delivered child-welfare services in order to offer valuable theory- and evidence-based insights for the future direction of child-welfare case practice through ICTs. We implore social workers to hone their ability to discern the difference between families’ ‘unwillingness’ to use ICTs and insufficient technological capital. Inability to adopt technology can be a stigmatizing event for some individuals. What might appear as an unwillingness to adopt a preferred ICT may actually be a lack of technological capital and the stigma associated with an inability to use certain ICTs.
The research was funded, in part, by the BGSU Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development 2013 Building Strength Program and the BGSU Service Learning Community (2013). Additionally, this research was supported in part by the BGSU Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University, which has core funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R24HD050959).
We have complied with APA ethical standards in the treatment of our participants, and we have prepared the manuscript in accordance with the APA Publication Manual. All authors have agreed to the submission and the manuscript is not under review elsewhere. The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. The authors declare that we have not reproduced any material from any other source. All individuals in this study provided informed consent prior to agreeing participate.
Author elects to not share data.
Volume27, Issue1
Special Issue: COVID‐19 and Implications for Families and Children
February 2022
Pages 11-21
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