In the more than 25 years that Mark Dhooge has been with Kids In Distress, he’s never seen anything affect the organization like the COVID-19 pandemic. And there’s little doubt that it’s the most unique challenge that the Wilton Manors-based agency has seen in its 40 year-history of following its mission to preserve families and prevent child abuse and treat abused and neglected children.
With the onset of the pandemic, the organization, which partnered with Family Central in 2019, has had to innovate quickly to continue to provide services to children and families—about 20,000 a year—from West Palm Beach to Miami-Dade County. Though its four different campuses (which recently went through a deep cleaning) are working on minimal staff to observe social distancing guidelines, KID is still stepping up its efforts virtually and in person as Dhooge, the president and CEO can attest to. They partnered with Feeding South Florida and FLIPANY to distribute meals to about 900 children every Monday morning as well as curriculums and resources for social workers (while practicing social distancing guidelines).
Dhooge spoke more to Lifestyle about how Kids In Distress is continuing its mission despite unprecedented events.
How was KID affected by the pandemic?
The scale of this crisis and how it affects every aspect of what we do in the organization is very significant. It not only affects our business operations in general, but everything from how we conduct home visits, how we license foster parents, how we do our training throughout the organization—whether it’s pre-service to foster parents, whether it’s our teachers who are pursuing certification, whether it’s our training academy that offers services to childcare centers in the community. Everything has been completely turned on its head in a lot of ways. We’ve had to be incredibly innovative and creative in making sure that we had business continuity throughout all of our programs. … [We had to cancel] our Duck Fest Derby presented by JM Family Enterprises Inc., and we were strategizing on how we can be creative and try to make sure that we raise some of the dollars that are injected in the organization every single year. [Editor’s Note: The 14th annual event previously was scheduled for March 28.]
It’s led our team to do some innovative things that we’ve never thought we’d have to do. I think sometimes with crisis, you’re forced to create innovation—from the bottom all the way up to our executive team—from our assistant teachers all the way to our CFO. We’ve had to find different ways and creative ways—and I would probably say, more efficient ways—to work through all of our business operations.
Can you talk about those innovations?
At any given time, we probably have 200 staff that work out in the community with families who are at risk—some of the most vulnerable families. We do that through a series of home visits where we go to the families’ homes, and we meet with them one-on-one. That’s all the way from a maternal health program, when you’re working with a new mom and trying to establish a parent-child relationship, through our family preservation programs, which work with families who are in crisis.
Right at the onset, we were very early adopters of going digital with everything. We operate a preschool in Miami. Because they had some COVID-19 early exposure, we had to close our preschool. We started to think, “OK, we need to really shift the organization fully and holistically.” We started to do that before some of the [social distancing] recommendations started. I’d say that kind of set us up for what happened next.
We started to do virtual visits. We got multiple Zoom accounts. We have now gone about 96 to 97% virtual on all of our home visits. What we found with that is that some parents were actually engaging at twice the level. With programs where we have one home visit a week, now we have two. If we were doing three in our family preservation program, we’re doing six, because families are more apt to communicate with us online.
What will you do to position KID for success as the crisis winds down?
I think the most important thing that we’re doing right now is retaining staff. Our services can only be as good as our staff are supported. Our mission is to prevent child abuse, preserve the family, and treat children who are affected by abuse and neglect. But we do that through a culture of support. We’ve ensured that all of our employees have the tools that they need to implement services on a daily basis. Those tools include self-care, being able to communicate freely amongst the leadership of the organization, making sure that communication is constant, as well as completely transparent all the time. … When I do weekly videos with the team, they know that they can contact anybody, and the whole leadership structure if they have a concern, or they’re needing some kind of support.
One of our concerns is that down the road is that, because families are under stress, that an increase in the prevalence of domestic violence could be precipitate more child abuse. We could possibly see more kids coming into foster care. So we did a very significant outreach about two weeks ago where we launched a virtual foster care pre-service training. We had 50 people that signed up almost immediately to get ready in the event that that influx of kids comes. We’ve tried to position ourselves in such a way that if this health crisis right now turns into a mental health crisis because of social isolation or a crisis of kids coming to care, that we are in a position to respond to that, both with our programs as well as ensuring that our staff are taken care of.
How did you avoid laying off staff?
The board has positioned the agency to have a very significant resource available, which is our foundation, to have reserves, which were meant for a situation like this. A hallmark of KID is that our retention rates are incredibly high. Unlike a lot of child-welfare organizations or mental-health organizations, our attrition rates are very, very low. We retain, I would say, 80 or 85% of our employees for three years or more. It gives us this bench of people that allows us to be at the cutting edge of services. We committed early on that even we weren’t going to furlough anybody; we were going to find other ways for them to be able to do their job. That’s probably most critical in our preschools because our preschools aren’t receiving any funding. … We’re not going to lay anybody off. We’re going to retain our staff so that when we can get up and running, we’re in a position to do that really fast. And we can do that through our reserves, which our board of directors has allowed us to retain over time.
Do you anticipate that this pandemic will change the way KID operates moving forward?
Unfortunately, sometimes when you don’t change things, you get stuck in your comfort zone. A crisis this big makes you get out of that comfort zone in so many different ways; some are negative, some are positive. But I can say that our team has embraced a positive and optimistic way of looking at things and being able to carry that through into the future. There’s already talk [that] when we go back to home visits, can we say that our procedures will be that families will check in a second time during the week and we’ll continue doing the Zoom visits because the support that they’ve received has been so significant?