Child Welfare Services Worry About Kids Who Went Off The Grid During Coronavirus Pandemic

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(Harrisburg) — Children’s advocates say they aren’t too worried about kids who are on the radar screen of child welfare agencies during the coronavirus pandemic, saying they are finding ways to continue keeping a protective eye on their charges.

It’s the children who have gone off the grid — because of statewide school closures, cancellation of sports, church and other activities, and even the end of routines such as going to doctor or the dentist’s office — that have people worried.

“We will see a rise in the cases of child abuse and neglect when this is over,” forecasts Angela Liddle, president of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, a group that’s been running training programs aimed at preventing child abuse and helping families stay together for more than 30 years.

Fellow advocate Cathleen Palm says a review of the numbers backs this up.

“Approximately 80% of all calls and online filings with ChildLine (the main statewide abuse reporting hotline) are made by mandated reporters – essentially all the adults that children have been largely disconnected from in recent weeks,” Palm said.

Case in point: Of the 46,617 total child abuse reports filed in Pennsylvania in 2018, 39,040 were made by a mandated reporter. The biggest group in that set? School employees, who accounted for more than a third of the tips in 2018. That regular connection with Pennsylvania’s kids is broken for the time being.

The better news is that many feel it’s the exact opposite situation for families already in the child welfare system. Some say the system is still tracking families trying to work their way to providing a more stable home for their kids; children who – for reasons of neglect or abuse – have already been placed outside the home; and households for whom a new ChildLine report has been made.

While the specifics vary a bit from county to county, a PennLive survey of several central Pennsylvania counties in recent days found that all are continuing with unannounced, in-person responses to any new reports of alleged abuse or neglect.

“You can’t really replace going out to someone’s home to investigate child abuse,” said Sarah Finkey, the children’s services administrator in Adams County. “There’s really no other way than to see the child.”

“I don’t have a concern about that call to ChildLine being handled any differently today than it was in February,” Liddle said.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some modifications being made for the safety of caseworkers.

In Cumberland County, Children & Youth Services Director Necole McElwee said a routine part of any visit now includes initial screening questions to determine if anyone at the home is sick. Even then, that won’t mean an investigation or meeting with a high-risk family is called off; it just means that case workers get to work trying to set up a meeting at a safer site, such as a nearby doctor’s office.

Other counties are doing interviews with appropriate social distancing in mind, even outside where practical.

All have begun working with their local emergency management agencies to try to secure face masks and gloves, so they’re at least available to caseworkers who want them.

More routine functions have moved to high-tech alternatives like Zoom, as directors try to limit their staffers’ fieldwork.

These are the cases where parents are permitted a supervised visit with a child who has already been placed outside of the home, or routine checks with families where problems are considered lower risk and the caseworker has already established a good rapport.

In many counties, those monthly, in-person visits have given way to weekly telephone calls that are partly designed to help make sure all households are aware of the various charity services that have been established to make sure pantries and refrigerators are full, new parents have access to diapers, or that kids who are ill are getting the proper medical care.

“We need to make sure we’re helping them get the services they need,” said Crystal Natan, who heads the Lancaster County Office of Children and Families. Natan estimated that in-home visits have dropped by 20 to 25 percent from the beginning of March across Lancaster, one of Pennsylvania’s most populous counties.

Liddle said anecdotal reports she’s heard about virtual visitations and other alternative approaches have been good.

“The providers I’ve heard from said they’ve had some of the best family visits they’ve ever seen,” Liddle said. “Everybody was home, and there was great interaction with the kids.”

At the state level, criminal background checks for aspiring teachers, would-be field trip chaperones and youth sports coaches and Sunday School teachers are also moving forward. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation fingerprint checks aren’t happening – the state’s third-party vendor that collects the prints here has closed most of its offices due to the virus.

The state Department of Human Services, which oversees the background check system, is still trying to figure out an appropriate work-around for that, though it appears that one potential solution – a blanket waiver of the federal fingerprint check – has already been ruled out.

“They’ve tried to keep many parts of the system running, so there’s not going to be a backlog,” Liddle said.

Everyone remains a little worried about what they can’t see and don’t know, however.

Counties checked for this story all reported a dip in new case referrals as the coronavirus pandemic and its hold on ordinary life here strengthened through March.

And statewide, there is at least early indicator of a fall-off in referrals.

State Department of Human Services Secretary Erin James said calls to ChildLine from Feb 11 to 17 were 4,121. From March 11-17, the most recent week from which numbers were available ,the call volume had fallen by more than 20 percent, to 3,284.

“As we enter April and Child Abuse Prevention Month we know that it is hard to talk prevention when for so many families in isolation it is literally holding on for dear life to just get through the day,” said Palm, founder of the Berks County-based Center for Children’s Justice.

“Families already under economic pressure may now be in more of a pressure cooker with the economic pressure from job loss mounting and then parents and caregivers turning to increased substance use and any abuse – child or domestic – that was already a factor in the family likely to be accentuated all the while the services, systems, people, including extended family, that can sometimes provide the reality check or the safety valve are isolated from direct contact from the child and family.”

Liddle said the best way to counteract that gap is to use the upcoming platform to remind everyone to be vigilant, especially those who aren’t necessarily mandated to file a report but who may be the only one in a position to do so.

“The best you can hope for is maybe the eyes of a community member,” Liddle said.

But as a longtime advocate of what the Family Support Alliance calls the “Front Porch Project,” which encourages community-wide engagement against child abuse, Liddle also said this is also a great time for neighbors to check in on neighbors, see if they could use a delivery of groceries, or just to say ‘Hi.’

If you are part of, or you know a family that is under special stress right now, some prime resources for parents seeking advice or help in Pennsylvania include:

  • The United Way of Pennsylvania recently opened a special help line that residents can access by texting their postal ZIP code to 898-211 for live help. Pennsylvanians can also dial 211 on their land line or mobile phone to be connected to a resource navigator.
  • Grandparents or other family members raising children, meanwhile, can seek help through the state’s KinConnector Helpline by calling 1-866-546-2111. Assistance is available Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • PA’s Promise for Children – https://papromiseforchildren.com/get-a-little-help/
  • Tri-County Community Action Agency / Dauphin County Family Center (serving Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties), at 717-232-9757 or https://cactricounty.org/our-programs/family-center/

“We should be making sure every parent understands it’s OK to not be OK, and to ask for help if you need help,” Palm said.

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post. PA Post is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom that covers politics and policy in Pennsylvania. Read their reporting at PaPost.org.