Dr. Darcey Merritt Awarded Seed Grant with Rutgers’ Dr. Cassandra Simmel for COVID-Related Child Welfare Research

Study Will Assess the Pandemic’s Impact on Child Welfare-Involved Families and Caseworkers
Split image of a macro closeup of the coronavirus on the left, and a small hand inside a larger one outlined with colorful splatters on right
Darcey Merritt Headshot
Associate Professor Darcey Merritt

NYU Silver Associate Professor Darcey Merritt and Rutgers University Associate Professor Cassandra Simmel have been awarded seed funding from the Rutgers Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness to study the impact of COVID-19 on child welfare-involved families and caseworkers in New York City, the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. 

Dr. Merritt noted that the communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 are the same ones that are disproportionately involved with the child welfare system. “The pandemic has only compounded the vulnerability of children living in fragile families and further exposed salient weak spots of the child welfare system,” she said. “We are seeking to gain an understanding of COVID-19’s impact on these families’ functioning, risk for maltreatment, and ability to manage sudden economic and systemic challenges, as well as to identify the barriers and challenges the pandemic has posed for child welfare caseworkers in their delivery of services to vulnerable families. This research has implications not only for how we can provide the most optimal services to vulnerable families during the current public health crisis, but also how their needs can be prioritized in future large-scale disasters.” 

The grant will fund a six-month, mixed methods, exploratory study done in two phases. First, the research team will conduct virtual, in-depth interviews with 25-30 caregivers and 25-30 caseworkers that delve into the impact of the virus with the overall aim to identify salient stressors, challenges, and strengths. The data collected from the qualitative interviews will inform the types of survey scales to be used in the second, quantitative portion of the study. Participants will be recruited from among the families served by The New York Foundling and the caseworker/clinicians employed by the agency to provide preventive services.

The study builds on Drs. Merritt and Simmel’s previously funded study involving New York Foundling caregivers and caseworkers ‒ Assessing the Feasibility of a Pilot Intervention for Parents Transitioning from Child Welfare Services ‒ which is currently underway. Given the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, they will leverage their established relationship with the agency and existing research infrastructure to immediately expand that project to encompass a focus on the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable families as well as on the caseworkers assisting them.

According to Dr. Simmel, while the first goal of the study is to understand how families navigate interpersonal, family management, and extensive socioeconomic challenges as a result of COVID-19, it is significant that the study also aims to understand how caseworkers are faring in their efforts to support vulnerable families. “Rarely do we assess the needs of caseworkers under typical circumstances in working with these families,” she said. “It is now imperative to assess their needs and barriers in providing optimal services as a result of public health restrictions resulting from the pandemic.” 

Said Dr. Merritt, “Only if we have an understanding of how COVID-19 is particularly impacting the child welfare system population and those charged with serving them can we begin to address their needs, enhance interventions and supports, and create a nimbler, more responsive system in the face of subsequent public health crises.”