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Child welfare advocates warn of ‘concerning’ impacts to kids amid pandemic

In a normal April, known to advocates as Child Abuse Prevention Month, Mary McGeown and her colleagues would happy to observe a drop in reports of child abuse and neglect. 

But with the coronavirus pandemic, the last month has been far from normal. 

Advocates have seen a dramatic reduction in child abuse allegations in the last month — about 60 percent fewer reports compared to the same period in 2019, McGeown, who serves as executive director for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, told Boston.com recently.

It’s not a development that is being celebrated. 

“It’s concerning because we know that the very people who have eyes on these kids — teachers, early childhood providers, after-school providers — aren’t seeing children,” McGeown said, pointing to the stay-at-home advisories and distance learning measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. “That means that concerns aren’t being raised and followed up on. So it’s very, very concerning.”

The Department of Children and Families has reported a steady decline each week in the reports of abuse and neglect from the start of March through April. During the first week of March, the state received 2,124 reports. 

By the week of April 12, the state received 963 reports. 

In a statement, DCF spokeswoman Andrea Grossman pointed to the state’s reliance on mandated reporters, such as teachers and doctors, for receiving reports of child abuse. 

“Children are safest when they are visible in the community and, during these unprecedented circumstances, DCF is coordinating efforts with our partner child-serving organizations to stay connected with children,” Grossman said. “Social workers continue to respond to emergencies in-person and make home visits when serious child safety concerns arise. Furthermore, DCF’s approach is consistent with federal guidance, which includes the addition of videoconferencing to maintain contact with children, families, and foster parents.”

Mandated reporters typically account for 80 percent of the reports of abuse or neglect received by DCF.

As distance learning has gotten up and running, McGeown said she and her colleagues are working to get the word out to educators that if they have concerns about a student, the child welfare industry is still open and ready to jump in and help. 

The MSPCC executive director underscored that it is not just mandated reporters who still can and should report concerns during the pandemic. The whole community has a responsibility to look out for the wellbeing of children within it, she said. Especially if there is a family or situation that was of concern before the pandemic. 

Food and housing insecurity are already stressors for at-risk families, she said.

“Kids who are living in poverty or living with families who are struggling with substance use issues, unemployment, mental illness, are 22 times more likely to be abused than a child who’s living in a home without those stressors,” the executive director said. 

The stress of the pandemic — with the social and economic hardships it has brought with it — are an added concern.

“We know this is a very challenging time,” she said. “The people who see kids aren’t seeing them, families are experiencing a tremendous amount of stress, children are anxious. This is a traumatic event for an adult, but for a child whose routines have been ripped up, and they’re now in a home that is feeling the stress, it can be a very, very dangerous time. And as I said, at a time when the best thing that we can do for our public health is to isolate ourselves, it’s that very isolation that could put kids at risk.”

The child welfare advocate said she expects to see a rise in reports of abuse and neglect as families and kids once again begin participating in social activities outside the home. During a normal year, the system sees fewer allegations during the summer months for the same reason there’s a drop now — because kids are not in school. 

Typically there’s a predicted increase in reporting in late September and early October as students return to classrooms. 

“I suspect we will see something similar as we go into whatever it looks like on the other side of normal,” McGeown said. 

It’s not just the falling number of reports of abuse and neglect that is concerning to advocates. As expected, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are more far-reaching across the child welfare system, McGeown said. 

“All of the children who come into care, all of our work is about making sure that they have lifelong connections and a family,” McGeown said. “And in the best of circumstances that’s reunifying a child with their parents, their biological parents.”

McGeown praised the child welfare system, which relies on face-to-face meetings, for the “swift” moves it has made as an industry to be remote with virtual engagement. Home visits are continuing virtually and staff have had to get creative with how they engage with children and families. 

“If you have a child that you’re nervous about, you might say, ‘Give me a tour of your apartment’ … there are lots of clues that staff can use to feel comfortable and good about the conditions a child is in, or to raise a red flag if a child is in imminent harm or at risk,” she said. “Those visits are still continuing. It may not look exactly the way it did a month ago — that it would be a case worker — but they can raise that flag and a worker will go out to that home to make sure that a child is safe.” 

Face-to-face visits between kids who have been removed from their homes and their parents are also happening virtually, with some extra focus on making the technologically hosted visits meaningful. Foster parents are feeding babies while the biological parent watches on Zoom. Or the parent reads a book over the video call. 

But sometimes still, the visits just won’t click. A 4-year-old might just not be interested in sitting in front of a camera for 15 minutes, McGeown said. But even with the disruptions, once a child is in the system, everyone is focused on what can be done to get a family back together and maintaining those meaningful visitations.

“For that child in care, that is the only parent they know,” the MSPCC director said. “They love that parent and they worry about that parent and they think about that parent. So I am concerned for those kids who aren’t able to connect with their biological family. That’s another area that could create great anxiety and if we’re not careful, delay the ability of the child and the family to be reunified.”

Courts are closed except for emergencies, which include the protective removal of a child from a home. Kids have continued to be placed in homes, and efforts of reunification or placement that were underway before the pandemic have continued. But McGeown said more longterm paths for reunification are likely to be impacted and slowed. 

She’s concerned that a backlog in cases could occur, leaving children in a prolonged limbo, which would be harmful. 

“Certainly during the first couple of weeks there really was a transformation of getting things in place so that these virtual visits could happen, so that workers were safe and children were safe, and really a lot of work around making sure that the system was able to care for the immediate needs,” McGeown said.

“And as we move forward, I think we’ll begin to look at, what are those next set of issues that we need to be thinking about as we go through the next few weeks and on the other side of this? So that we don’t find ourselves in the fall with a lot of cases that are backed up,” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re in a position to make sure that kids have a permanent loving home, whether that’s their biological or adoptive home.”

Overall, the focus must remain on promoting and maintaining the social and emotional wellbeing of kids amid the stress and trauma of the pandemic. Regardless of their home situation, all kids — like adults — are experiencing the fear and uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. For kids already engaged with the child welfare system, whose lives have already been disrupted or are challenging and stressful, it is especially concerning. 

She worries that the disruptions of not being able to see friends and of distance learning will impact their behavioral health needs. 

“Those children have lived chaotic lives to begin with, so I worry about the trauma of what was once routine, going to school, seeing teachers, having friends — those types of connections are no longer there,” the MSPCC director said. “Taking a child, who’s already experienced a tremendous amount of loss and grief and trauma, and adding one more is of concern.”

With the ongoing challenge of the pandemic, McGeown urged everyone to be on “heightened alert” for the children in their communities.

“People should call, they should file, and they should report,” she said. “And I know that’s a hard thing for people because folks — raising a family — people feel as if it’s a very personal issue. But kids need all of us to be thinking about them. And sometimes children don’t have a voice and it’s up to us as a community to really look out for them.”

Anyone who suspects a child of being abused or neglected can call DCF’s Child-At-Risk Hotline (800) 792-5200 from 5 p.m. to 8:45 a.m., Monday through Friday and on weekends and holidays. Local DCF offices are also taking calls during regular business hours. 

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