Betsy Goulet has worked to help and protect children since the late 80s. After a brief stint as a Child Protective Investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, she went on to found such groups as the Sangamon County Child Advocacy Center and advise public leaders on at-risk youth and victims of childhood violence.
She’s now a faculty member at UIS, and is promoting a training program called the Child Protection Training Academy. It’s designed to retain new DCFS investigators that often leave the position after a few years by preparing them for what they may face in a client’s home. Goulet believes state investigators are more crucial than ever in the COVID-19 era, and the type of training the Academy provides might be able to keep department ranks strong.
She recently spoke with me about working with DCFS to retool its approach to child welfare for a socially distant reality.
MS: Betsy, where did the idea of this program come from originally?
BG: “Quite a few years ago, we had an idea that we could do our part to train child protection investigators in a more experiential fashion. We had, what was probably ignored by a lot of people, a little house that had fallen into quite a state of disrepair on our campus, and that little house was repurposed to become a simulation lab for training frontline child protection professionals.”
“Hands-on training has a much greater likelihood of translating from the type of learning that you have to the actual practice in the field. And so that's what eventually was developed - this partnership with DCFS to create this experiential component, where they still learn policies and procedures, but we augment that training by putting them into realistic environments, where they interact with actors who are actually standardized patient actors from the School of Medicine in Springfield.”
MS: To that point - when you were working as a child protection investigator for DCFS, what were some of the issues and barriers to success that you encountered in your experience?
BG: “I think the biggest issue that child protection investigators face is the unknown. The only thing they have going into that environment is a report from the hotline. And it tells you in a very one-dimensional way, a little bit of information about why that report was made to the hotline, but it tells you very little about what the family is experiencing. If there's any other underlying conditions, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health. So you are lacking a lot of the context for what that family is going through.”
“Unless they were known to the department previously, you know, through other allegations, you are operating at a real deficit, when you knock on that door. You don't know if that person just lost his or her job. You don't know if they've dealt with a death in the family or an illness. So you better be really, really well equipped to engage with that family, from the minute they open that door.”
MS: Within the program, how many scenarios does it go through? What kind of simulations or how many simulations do investigators prepare for with the program? How long does the program last?
BG: “The model right now is just four days of simulation training. We want there to be opportunities for them to experience different types of maltreatment, and different types of people, different socioeconomic circumstances, and a variety of the underlying conditions that we mentioned before. And it's very hard to do that when you only have the investigators for a few days.”
“So that's what we're trying to get to - a point where we can build more scenarios, different types of environments where they have to experience something that perhaps looks really good on the surface, but there are issues below the surface that need to be discovered and addressed.”
MS: With the COVID-19 pandemic in play and stay-at-home orders announced by Governor Pritzker, we’re living in some strange times for sure. I’m curious as to how that affects the business of DCFS and investigative reporters. Are they still working? Are the children still being looked after?
BG: “Yes, I can tell you that on the frontline when we talk about child protection and the investigators, they are still working, there is still a response in person to allegations of child maltreatment.”
“We know that calls are down nationally to the hotline. And that's attributable, I'm sure, to the fact that kids are not at school, and so they're lacking those eyes and ears. Teachers are among the highest level of reporters to the hotline and so without their observation, without their notification, children aren't being reported. But calls are still coming in and investigators are still doing in-person meetings as best they can to protect themselves and to the people that they're interacting with.”
“Right now, we are meeting almost every day as an academy team with our DCFS colleagues to figure out how to improve training, how to translate what is usually on-ground simulation training to an online environment. And so we've been teaching problem based learning, we've been coming up with some other types of in-services that we can give to the field. But I am quite impressed with how the department has adapted to what is normally not an easy task. This is reimagining child welfare in a pretty vast way.”
MS: What would you say to people who want to be active in the lives of their loved ones or want to help check up on those that need the help, but they also want to keep everyone safe by staying indoors and social distancing? What do they do when staying home isn’t safe?
BG: “Right. And it's not for a lot of people, I mean for my colleagues who work in domestic violence, they know that and you know, the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment. That is a fairly common phenomenon. We have to be vocal and families who are disconnected right now have to find other ways to be together.”
“Call your family members, set up a FaceTime. Be in their home as best you can. As a neighbor, check in across the driveway, and the message is supposed to be like the hearts for the healthcare workers. ‘If you need somebody, reach out. I'm a neighbor that knows what to do or will find a way to help you.’”