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Are there child welfare practices to keep from COVID-19?

Amid many unknowns, child advocates are hopeful the pandemic hasn’t been all bad for vulnerable kids

SHARE Are there child welfare practices to keep from COVID-19?
SHARE Are there child welfare practices to keep from COVID-19?

Many unknowns have emerged in the nation’s child protective services during the pandemic, where reports of suspected child abuse and neglect have decreased dramatically, but actual abuse and neglect might have climbed.

At the same time, there are indications some children and their families in the child welfare system may have received more, not less help and are better off because of pandemic-forced changes.

There are tantalizing hints that parents and children may have experienced more effective interactions with judges and social workers during video conferences than in the normal, formal courtroom and social service settings, where families might feel more intimidated.

Experts from child protection and advocacy groups say a thorough review of child welfare during COVID-19 may promise both good news and bad.

But the pandemic also may have introduced problems that technology can’t fix.

Many jurisdictions — New York, Ohio and Massachusetts, among others — have seen half or fewer reports of child abuse and neglect compared to the same months in 2019, Naomi Schaefer Riley, an American Enterprise Institute resident fellow, said during a recent national online panel discussion of the U.S. child welfare system. Many believe the decrease reflects far fewer watchful eyes to recognize and report signs of abuse and neglect because so many children aren’t seeing their pediatricians, teachers and others who account for a sizable share of referrals for suspected harm.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said 70%-80% of children have missed regular doctor appointments during COVID, for example.

“With the lockdown in place, we simply don’t know what’s happening to many kids. They’re not at school, many of them not even remotely. They’re not at doctors’ offices and we just don’t know what’s happening in their lives — whether they need any kind of help or whether they’re in danger,” she said.

Under pressure

It’s clear many parents are under greater stress because of lost jobs and wages, increasing caregiver responsibilities and, perhaps, more need for safety-net help like food assistance because of COVID-19. Substance abuse has reportedly risen during the pandemic.

Greg McKay, former homicide detective and past director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety, said one question can be answered with “sad certainty. For many children, isolation merely leads to chronic abuse with no one to intervene on their behalf.” During the online discussion, he noted that “secrecy has been the key ingredient to some of the most egregious cases of child physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and fatalities.”

Even before COVID-19 increased pressures, McKay said many of the most vulnerable families had high-risk factors for abuse, including economic distress, housing instability, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, domestic violence and feelings of isolation. He said it’s probable that in some families, “COVID-19 accelerated those frailties and risk factors for children.”

McKay advocates sending kids back to school in part for those who are vulnerable; harm might not be detected if they simply remain at home.

To find out what has happened to family courts during the lockdown, former judge and past director of the Michigan Department of Human Services Maura Corrigan told the panel she reviewed national data and interviewed judges, court administrators and state officials in Texas, California, Utah, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. 

During the pandemic, state courts stopped or restricted jury trials (used in some states for termination of parental rights cases), suspended in-person court proceedings, employed more teleconference or video conferences and extended deadlines. And while she, too, has seen a decrease in reporting of abuse and neglect, Corrigan said the pandemic has offered “an opportunity for us to rethink our approach in low-risk cases.”

Should there be an interim step where families struggling because of lack of resources are offered supportive services instead of being reported to an abuse or neglect hotline? Corrigan asked. “Should poverty be punished as neglect or should parents be helped?” she asked several times.

Others have raised similar points brought up in the panel discussion. In August, a briefing report for the Council on Contemporary Families by assistant professor Kelley Fong of Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology highlighted parallels between child protective services and policing. She said that “with the fraying of the social safety net in recent decades, efforts to help families take the form of summoning an agency that can forcibly separate them.” She warned of “fear and mistrust” by families who are not mistreating children.

Professionals required to report what they think might be abuse or neglect usually hope families will be given supportive services, she said, but the power differential between the state and the family can create strain. Families may feel pitted against government employees who have the power to take their children.

Remote connections

“Honestly, at this point I think everything is being stretched to the limit so just providing support to families is so crucial,” said Laura Napolitano, assistant professor or sociology at Rutgers University Camden. “Families are struggling with employment, housing and financial insecurity as well as changes in their children’s education on top of the overall stress of the pandemic. Any services, whether child welfare or financial or housing assistance that can provide some help to families experiencing these changes is important.”

The pandemic didn’t waive the timeline in which cases must be considered. The Children’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified state courts it cannot waive statutory time requirements tied to federal funding, despite limitations and challenges created by the global health crisis, Corrigan said.

That letter prompted states to shift to virtual hearings, she said.

As states “pivoted to remote,” she said, connectivity problems were found, including families who didn’t have access to technology. Texas, Illinois, Iowa and Idaho dealt with that by setting up video-conferencing kiosks in social service agencies, libraries and courthouses. Courts staggered dockets and assigned staff to help families connect.

Wisconsin and Michigan used some of their federal court improvement funding to buy more than a thousand Zoom licenses so they could conduct family court hearings that way. They haven’t yet overcome one problem, though, in states where proceedings by law are confidential. Some video hearings can be publicly accessed online because of the conferencing app used — what Corrigan calls a “looming issue” needing a legislative solution.

Most challenges have been met with innovative solutions, Corrigan said, like remote jury trials to consider terminating parents’ rights in Wisconsin, the rise of group or individual therapy sessions via video conference and also online caseworker visits and parenting classes.

Children in many states interact more in hearings conducted remotely over computer than they did live in court. They’re used to being on their phones and “they aren’t frightened in the same way they would be in a court appearance,” according to Corrigan. And children are seeing their parents more often through remote visits, which can occur daily instead of weekly or biweekly when travel is involved.

“As you can imagine, especially where reunification is the goal, daily visitation is reinforcing and gives great hope to parents who are working hard to have their children restored to their home,” she said.

Filling the void

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been intrigued by reports that in some communities social workers have been able to spend more time with families and provide more help through remote visits, said Rodney Brittingham, associate director of the foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group, who was not part of the institute panel discussion.

Still, the pandemic has brought other challenges, including delays in achieving a permanent placement, a shortage of foster homes for kids entering the child welfare system and more homelessness and unemployment for youths aging out of foster care, Corrigan said.

But Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, said where systems are overtaxed or fall short, he’s seen individuals and groups — churches, couples and others — step in and meet needs. “Very deep human issues,” he suggested, benefit from faith-based and community-based efforts that can connect to people in ways a government program can’t.

Brittingham believes a lot of organizations are trying to help families, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. “The optimist in me wants to say that many families are being better served in communities now that systems are more attuned to the needs of families and providing services maybe differently, rather than just reporting them to the child welfare system.”

He said the foundation worked for many years toward a system that gives families needed help before an investigation or child welfare placement ever become warranted. Despite progress, he added, child welfare investigations are still largely adversarial in a system designed to rescue kids after harm, rather than meet needs in a way that prevents harm.

Brittingham said the Family First Act allows use of federal money for prevention services. And communities are also experimenting. He points to Delaware, where if a referral seems to indicate teenager-parent conflict, a community-based organization does a safety and risk assessment, rather than sending out a protective services investigator first thing. Parents and teens may be offered voluntary services to help resolve issues so the teen isn’t unnecessarily or inappropriately placed in foster care, he said.

That Family Assessment Intervention and Response program “has served thousands of families, with very few coming back to the attention of the child welfare system,” he said.