The increase in time spent with family members during the pandemic can bring new or already existing challenges to the surface. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with the President and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers, Lesli Suggs, about how the organization is working to help families navigate these stressful times. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: What does life look like right now for families who, like I said, are living on top of each other and have, in many cases, nowhere to go?
Lesli Suggs: Families right now are highly stressed and fragile. We've got kids that are home from school all day, isolated [and] not involved in their normal activities, and home with families that are dealing with multiple stress factors like insecure income, not sure how they're going to be able to make ends meet and also having to structure their kids' day and keep them busy and occupied and engaged in school. So families are really stretched right now, as we all know.
Mathieu: Well, yeah, and in many cases, there's no relief valve. And that's where we start to run into trouble.
Suggs: Exactly. There's not the normal outlets. Kids can't run out and play [and] they're socially isolated from their friends. And families on their best day are challenged and struggling. We have families that are, again, worried about making ends meet [and] worried about how they're going to pay their rent all while trying to keep their kids structured, organized, doing school work and feeling okay. We've got kids that are more anxious and feeling down and depressed. Families are having a tough time right now and we're seeing that at The Home. We continue to provide services to kids and families in a telehealth environment, and just last week alone, we received 50 calls from parents and from schools looking to have us engage with kids.
Mathieu: Well, that brings me to my next question, which is how we're dealing with it. I wondered how many calls you're getting. Are there more or maybe fewer than we're used to because everyone's around each other?
Suggs: We're seeing increased calls. As I said, we received 50 calls just last week from local families here in the Boston area. And at the same time, families that we've been working with, for some of those families, it's harder to engage. We have clinicians that are typically embedded in Boston Public Schools — well over 75 schools — where we're seeing kids every day in their school environment. We're now providing those services in a telehealth environment. And for some families [and kids], that's a hard transition to make. We're spending a lot of time on the phone with families and parents just helping them navigate, How do I structure homework, how do I get my kids off the gaming station and how do I establish a routine for them? Really providing a ton of support for parents. And for some kids, it's harder to make that transition. So they're not necessarily engaged with their clinician [or] counselor in the same way. So we're doing our very best to meet those needs for kids and for new families. Families are reaching out to Boston Public Schools. Maybe they didn't receive services before and they know that their child's experiencing some anxiety, so they're looking for resources and we have a very close relationship with Boston Public Schools to provide those services. But there are real barriers. One, for example, is that certain times of the month the cell phone bill hasn't been paid, so there's no cell phone coverage. Or the Internet service gets cut off. So we're trying to figure out how to engage in a telehealth environment with limited resources.
Mathieu: These are big questions these families are asking you. In the cases of the phone actually working, how hard is it to break through in the world of telehealth? How hard is it to have an honest conversation?
Suggs: Well, it's just not an ideal way to provide services. That said, we're doing our very best. We've helped families engage. Zoom has now become a verb, so we're Zooming with families [and] reaching out in that way. I worry mightily about the kids that are home all day without school as a safety net. There's no doubt in my mind that we'll see a surge of families who are needing services or [are] unfortunately involved with Department of Children and Families post COVID-19 because of the stressors that are happening at home. You have families that maybe struggle with substance use or where there's been domestic violence. School was that child's happy place — a place for them to go during the day. Now families are home all day with each other, again, highly stressed, fragile, often without the same support that they had before and also with minimal visibility to the typical community engagement that might red flag a concern. So at The Home, I'm working mightily to keep a workforce ready and prepared for what life will be like returning to school in the post-COVID-19 environment.
Mathieu: Well, you bring up a whole other idea that's returning to structure. Are you worried, though, that this school year might not continue? That, in fact, we're looking at next fall?
Suggs: I am worried about that and I'm worried about what life is going to be like going into the summer. We're already having conversations about summer camps that typically kids get to engage in and how families are going to manage through a summer where the weather is nice, but yet kids have to stay socially isolated and indoors. Providers have been incredibly nimble as they've worked with the families that they serve. The state has been a great partner in helping us try to keep services in place and give us extra funds. But admittedly, it's not enough. We need community support. And yes, I'm worried about what the summer will bring as we get a sense of where this will end.