UW News

June 22, 2020

Amid pandemic, UW School of Social Work’s Project Connect provides opportunities for students to learn, serve community

UW News

Two boys lying on floor, looking at tablet screen

When Washington state’s stay-at-home order went into effect in late March, visits between children in foster care and their biological parents had to shift online. University of Washington School of Social Work faculty helped draft training materials for child-welfare workers who monitor those visits.Victoria Borodinova for Pixabay


For children in foster care, having regular visits, or “family time” with their biological parents is considered critical for maintaining bonds and building toward a time when they may once again live together as a family.

The best visits are focused on the child, experts say, when parents ask questions, play or otherwise engage in activities that the child is interested in and which support the parent-child bond.

That’s not easy to do over video chat. But with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Washington began requiring remote, rather than in-person, family time, which can make meaningful visits a challenge.

It was something that Emiko Tajima, an associate professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work and executive director of Partners for Our Children, knew her team could help with. The research and policy center collaborates with the state Department of Children, Youth and Families on practice and policy reform to improve outcomes for children and families.

The Partners for Our Children team quickly developed a curriculum called Supportive Virtual Family Time to train those who supervise virtual visits between children and parents, until in-person visits can be safely resumed.

And through an ongoing collaborative effort of the UW School of Social Work called Project Connect, additional research components of the virtual family time program have been developed. Project Connect supports 15 different endeavors, all oriented specifically around community needs during COVID-19.

“When the pandemic struck, and the stay-at-home and social distancing orders were given, they had an immediate impact not only on the university, but also on the populations that social work exists to serve,” said School of Social Work Dean Eddie Uehara, who came up with Project Connect in late winter, as the UW was shifting to online instruction, and local restrictions were being enacted. “Project Connect is a reflection of the range of social issues and populations that we care for, that we have a commitment and capacity to serve.”

More information on Project Connect is available here.

The research activities under the Project Connect umbrella, each led by a UW faculty member, involve at least one student and often a community organization or agency. They represent another form of fieldwork, a required component of both the undergraduate and graduate-level social work programs and the on-the-ground learning of how to gauge needs, make decisions and provide services.

Early in the pandemic, Uehara saw the urgent needs and social justice issues that were arising. With the help of faculty and their research centers and agency partners, she quickly organized a series of opportunities for students to sign up and get involved. Most projects will last through summer quarter and include:

  • Four efforts focused on communication with and services to Native communities;
  • Two projects that adapt parent-coaching resources for families with children in the foster care system;
  • Refining an educational program on safe firearm storage and suicide prevention;
  • Researching telehealth and other interventions for elders in marginalized communities;
  • Addressing the needs of people who are incarcerated, and their families, during COVID-19

Margaret Spearmon, faculty emerita and the school’s director of community engagement, leads Project Connect. Thanks to partnerships with agencies and organizations around the state, the school continues to learn of other needs, Spearmon said.

“We’ve had a very long history of collaborating with the community. There’s an openness to seeing how different minds can approach problem solving, and how we can promote equity and social justice. The more people you bring to the table from various disciplines and sectors to look at different situations, the richer and more creative the outcome,” she said.

The projects led by social work faculty at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute collaborate with Native agencies, youth leaders and other community members. One, POP (Protect Our Population) Art, has begun working with Washington tribes to develop community-appropriate, preventive health messages, using poster art to spread the word.

Native Americans suffer disproportionate rates of hypertension, diabetes and other conditions, putting them at greater risk of fatality related to the coronavirus. Here in Washington, Native Americans represent about 1% of COVID-19 cases. Native Americans’ history with disease since contact with white settlers has been devastating, said social work professor Karina Walters, co-director of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute and faculty lead on the POP Art project. And the 1918 flu affected Natives at four times the rate of the general population. But just as communities have survived before, they will survive again, she said.

“Art is a vehicle to share prevention messages and a quick tool for public service,” said Walters, noting the legacy of various forms of art – drama, music, oral storytelling – in Native communities.

The messaging through POP Art will use Native humor and, likely, graffiti art to address themes that resonate, such as respect for elders, taking care of family, and the responsibility of all for the surrounding community. Researchers plan to work with Native artists to produce the posters.

While that project addresses one level of social work practice – community, other activities focus on the individual or family level, like Partners for Our Children’s Supportive Virtual Family Time.

Some 8,100 children and teens are in foster, or “out-of-home” care in Washington, awaiting reunification with their biological families. Regular family time sessions with parents are part of the arrangement, typically in a neutral location and supervised by a representative of a child welfare agency or private nonprofit.

But with Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order effective March 26, “we realized pretty quickly that there was a need for a program to train those individuals who would be supervising visits,” Tajima said. “What can a parent do to maintain bonds when they can’t hold the child or give them a hug?”

So Tajima’s team developed a free training curriculum and guide for Supportive Virtual Family Time, which includes videos and tips for every step of the process, such as helping parents cope with stress leading up to the family time, and establishing some online hello/goodbye rituals with their children. The curriculum is piloting another strategy, too: a remote meeting, monitored by the family time navigator, between the parent and foster caregiver. It represents a shift in the approach to child welfare, Tajima explained, making it more about supporting the family rather than “saving” the child.

Two students joined the research component of Supportive Virtual Family Time: an undergraduate, who compiled a variety of activity ideas for parents and children to participate in during remote family time; and a graduate student, who designed a survey for navigators who have completed the new training and have tried the strategies when monitoring subsequent virtual family time.

The Supportive Virtual Family Time project, like many of the Project Connect efforts, is expected to continue beyond its immediate tasks and goals, the product of a rapid deployment of resources to meet a social challenge, said Rachel Wrenn, the school’s assistant dean for field education.

“We’ve always been very active and committed, as a school, to community needs, but the convergence of the suffering and social injustices uncovered by the pandemic, and the continuing violence in society, will mobilize us to respond in even more innovative ways,” she said.

For more information, contact Spearmon at spearmon@uw.edu.