OKLAHOMA CITY – As more people lose jobs and face hardships due to the spread of COVID-19, social service agencies are changing the way they do business.
The Department of Human Services is letting customers sign up and renew benefits online, said Justin Brown, DHS director and secretary of human services and early childhood initiatives.
Those services include food stamps and child care assistance.
Earlier this week, roughly 75% of the agency’s 6,200 employees were working from home, he said.
“We started working on this project a couple of months ago, about 90 days ago, evaluating what the technology needs were, what our processes and systems were, so we could start to build a more mobile workforce,” Brown said.
The agency also implemented a policy of requiring appointments for visits to county offices in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Brown said.
The agency has curtailed inspecting child care facilities, he said.
“We will not stop things like child abuse investigations,” Brown said.
It is up to supervisors to determine allegations of abuse and neglect of the elderly, Brown said.
He said he doesn’t believe services and programs will be curtailed in light of the financial uncertainty facing the nation.
“We believe it will be the other direction,” Brown said. “So once the health crisis is over, whenever that is, our agency will be the one standing to rebuild the social safety net.”
The agency serves about 1 million people a year with 92 offices, Brown said.
Bill Whited is the state long-term care ombudsman and has a staff of 27 ombudsmen across the state who act as advocates for residents in long-term care facilities.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has suspended visitation in long-term care facilities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
An ombudsman can help facilities set up communication lines through FaceTime and Skype, Whited said.
He said his office also investigates allegations of neglect, abuse and exploitation.
He said it is too soon to say if there has been an increase.
Molly Bryant is the underserved outreach advocate for Domestic Violence Intervention Services of Tulsa, which provides services for all survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and stalking.
The organization provides outpatient counseling, legal services, safe housing, an emergency shelter, transitional housing and education and outreach.
The organization operates a 24-hour information and crisis line, she said.
“We have seen a lot of people calling our crisis line feeling more distressed about what they are seeing in the world,” she said.
They are experiencing heightened anxiety and stress, she said.
People are being told to stay at home and engage in social distancing to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
“Domestic violence is about power and control,” she said. “Domestic violence perpetrators in general often isolate survivors or partners as a control factor.”
She said abusers are exploiting social distancing and mandated isolation to further control their partners.
“So that is really what we are most concerned about,” Bryant said. “We don’t know what this looks like in the long term.”
Family & Children’s Services serves Tulsa County and surrounding areas with more than 60 programs for children, families and adults that range from mental illness to child abuse trauma.
Isolation is one of the leading triggers for domestic violence, said Dee Harris, chief communication officer for Family & Children’s Services.
Schools across the state have closed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Harris said 85% of child mistreatment cases are reported from schools and individuals who are in the safety net of children.
“Kids are now in their homes,” she said. “They are not being seen by other individuals and benevolent adults in their environment.”
As a result, children could be at risk for unreported abuse or neglect, Harris said.
Gallery: 10 tips for how to ease stress and anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic
1. Maintain perspective
2. Take appropriate precautions
3. Stay informed, but ...
4. Find a sense of security
6. Get physical
7. Find the positives
8. Stay mentally active
9. Be creative
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