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Despite A World In Crisis And Staff’s Personal Challenges - A Little Girl Reunified

Ryan B #2 photoFor the second time in two years, the family lost their home and again faced the difficult challenge of caring for two young children while navigating the stress of unstable housing.  

Regrettably, this scenario is not uncommon among the families that the Department of Children and Families serves.

But what if the family is one that belongs to Department staff? It is an opportunity to see that the families we serve are not so different from our own.

Ryan Buzzell, a 10-year veteran social worker in the Hartford office, was reminded of this as he and his wife had to leave their Glastonbury home with their 5-year-old daughter and 7-year old son twice in two years due to flooding damage.
The second episode, which just ended with the family moving back home in late April, was compounded because of the personal and professional challenges that result from being a social worker in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic was just about to hit Connecticut hard when the family moved to a two-bedroom hotel with a kitchenette in February. 

With all the uncertainty and anxiety swirling, the family faced a two-month ordeal in an unfamiliar and confined space.

Mr. Buzzell said his family got through it by virtue of the same dynamics that the families we serve experience themselves.

“It took some patience and some good family conversation,” he said. “It’s the same thing we expect from the families we serve. How do we handle stress and remain safe and happy?”

That Mr. Buzzell could face his family’s challenge while also serving families on his caseload during the pandemic is a testament to his dedication and skill, but also to his ability to partner creatively with his clients and his Department teammates. The pandemic has led the Department to change traditional ways of working -- including reserving home visits to situations that cannot be addressed remotely through online video conferencing, FaceTime, or phone.

Mr. Buzzell said this has not stopped him from conducting the most complicated parts of the work – including reunifications and supporting relative caregivers.

One family that Mr. Buzzell is particularly proud of included a single mother and her 8-year-old daughter. The mom was struggling with substance use, mental health needs, and unstable housing when the Department removed the 8-year-old in May 2019 and brought her to a kinship home. While initially resistant to working with the Department, the mother over time was able to understand what she needed to do in order to be reunified, Mr. Buzzell said. Mother bought into her substance use treatment, worked on her emotional issues and maintained her sobriety for 9 months. In January 2020, mother secured stable housing – just weeks before the pandemic would turn the world and the Department’s work upside down.

But that would not stop Mr. Buzzell from potentially getting the family back together. Nor would his own family’s housing challenge.  

“We did a lot of good work with our legal team, my chain of command, management, the foster mom, and the Village for Families and Children to make sure everyone was on the same page,” he said. ”A lot of the stuff was done through FaceTime calls, Microsoft Teams and so on.”

Mr. Buzzell gave a lot of credit to the foster mother who brought the little girl to many unsupervised visits with mother and then back home again. He said he had enough experience with the family to properly and safely allow the unsupervised visits. 

“I’ve worked with the family a couple years now, and I have a good vibe of them over time,” he said. “Plus, I had the chance to get to the apartment prior to the COVID crisis, so I was confident in our decision.”

The child went home April 17 – after the Department changed its practice, at least for now, to remote work whenever possible.  

“That was the challenge,” he said. “How can we do this and make sure we are doing this safely? We can still wrap services around mom, and we can communicate with the providers remotely, which is perfect.” 

Ryan B PhotoMr. Buzzell said the Village for Families and Children are providing mental health and substance use treatment services, and the Connection is supporting the housing for the family. CHR, another community provider, is giving the little girl counseling. All these services are provided through a tele-health model, Mr. Buzzell said.

We’re still able to do everything,” he said. “It’s just a little different.” 

What’s remained the same is the need to build trust and relationships. “I think about how I would want to be treated,” Mr. Buzzell said. “It’s about building that trust because we all have to work together. It’s a two-way street.”

Mr. Buzzell has stayed very involved – albeit creatively. He has two Microsoft Team meetings every week with mom and her daughter in their home. Some of these meetings involve good fun, he said. “I get to talk to the girl and see how she is doing,” he said. “One time, mom and daughter were playing a card game that they were teaching me over the phone.” 

The 8-year-old has also used her phone to show Mr. Buzzell her room, her stuffed animal collection, and the new laptop her school provided her for remote learning. “She shares a lot of positive stuff with me,” he said. “She seems very happy – just from reading her smile and her mood.”

This is not the only family that Mr. Buzzell has had success in doing effective social work through non-traditional means while facing his own personal challenges and COVID-19 related stress. A two-year-old boy is living with her maternal aunt, and the boy’s father is regularly visiting his son at the aunt’s home. Mr. Buzzell talks with father two to four times a week and checks in with the aunt and the boy via FaceTime.

Mr. Buzzell said these new ways of connecting with children and famliies work so well that he expects them to continue after the crisis ends. “I can see some changes happening,” he said.

Christine Lau, an assistant chief of the Bureau of Child Welfare, said Mr. Buzzell represents the ways our staff will do what it takes to get good outcomes. 

“We cannot do this work alone,” she said.   “In difficult times we must rely on those around us, including our community partners, to achieve the best possible outcomes for children and families.   Creativity and learning to navigate the virtual world in the midst of a pandemic and personal challenges is more evidence of just how resilient and passionate our staff really are.” 

Undoubtedly, that Mr. Buzzell could conduct his work so effectively during the crisis – and his family’s own housing crisis – is a testament to the team he is surrounded by, he said. 

“It helps to have a good team within the DCF family and our own families,” he said, adding that his supervisor and other colleagues were tremendous supports as his family dealt with complicated logistics surrounding the move back home. That was a key to getting his work done while also taking care of his own family. 

“We all have our own DCF families and that helps support our own families,” he said with gratitude. “It’s a two-way street.”