This article was originally published by the Baltimore Sun on April 25, 2020.
By Yvonne Wenger and Alison Knezevich
Reports of child abuse and neglect have fallen sharply in Maryland since the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the state, shuttering kids in their homes and away from the watchful eyes of teachers, health care workers and extended family.
State Department of Human Services data show a dramatic decline in reports of children suffering possible harm, but that’s at the same time systems charged with protecting them have been hampered in their outreach by the pandemic.
Caseworkers have begun doing some of their checks on families by phone or video. Courts reviewing child placements and family reunification efforts are, for the most part, closed.
Experts fear that child maltreatment is going unreported. Especially worrisome, advocates say, is that families are enduring severe pressures — from job losses to depression, substance abuse and conflict triggered by isolation.
“It is a dangerous time for children and families: We know no family intends to hurt their children, but the stressors are profound,” said Rita Soronen, President & CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a nonprofit that advocates for children in foster care.
Across Maryland, Child Protective Services offices received nearly 70% fewer calls during the first two weeks in April compared to the same period last year. In 2019, officials got 958 calls in the first half of April. The state received 320 calls for the same period this year.
The decline was evident during the progressive shutdown of businesses and government services in March. Calls went from 490 in the first week of March to 136 the last week of the month. Compared to March 2019, reports fell by almost one-third, to 1,492 last month from 2,176 a year ago.
Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the human services department, implored community members to report any signs a child is being abused or neglected. Reports to local social services offices or law enforcement agencies can be made anonymously.
Even during the outbreak, Child Protective Services workers are investigating allegations, and children in dangerous situations are being removed from their homes and placed in foster care for their protection.
“We rely on communities to help alert us to these situations, so that we can take immediate action and ensure a safe environment for everyone,” Morris said in an email.
Children living with parents who struggle with anger management and alcoholism or drug abuse face both immediate and long-term impacts, said Sheryl Brissett Chapman, who runs the National Center for Children and Families. The center serves families throughout Maryland and the District of Columbia, providing a range of services for young people and families dealing with violence, neglect, poverty and homelessness.
Reopening the schools will be key to protecting children, she said.
“School has been a source of identifying children who are not getting good enough [care] at home, who come to school hungry or fearful or injured,” Chapman said. “And hungry can be physical and emotional. If you’re being called names, that can be as gripping as being hit, because it attacks your self-worth.”
Nationally, about 20 percent of reports of child abuse come from schools, said Adam Rosenberg, who directs the Baltimore Child Abuse Center and is vice president for LifeBridge Health’s violence intervention and prevention efforts. Figures for the rate in Maryland were not available.
Rosenberg said the child abuse center remains open during the pandemic. Its doctors, nurses and therapists see children daily for medical and forensic exams, including ones given when a child enters foster care. The team is also offering telemedicine visits.
For their part, social workers are trying to stay in frequent contact with kids, families and foster parents virtually and over the phone, officials said. However, in-person visits with children in care are supposed to happen at least once a month; now that they don’t, advocates are concerned that social workers could miss signs of trouble, especially when children are young and not yet talking.
And not all families have access to the internet or smartphones to replace the in-person visits with virtual ones.
In Baltimore, where the digital divide is particularly acute, the city Department of Social Services is conducting surveys to figure out which families lack internet and computers, according to its director, Randi Walters. The agency is using its funding and support from philanthropies to get the families connected.
Walters said the equipment is necessary for both the social workers to help navigate complicated family situations and protect children, but also to ensure parents and kids can stay connected even if they are separated and in group homes or living with foster parents or extended family.
The first wave of the agency’s surveys in Baltimore shows most families do have the ability for video conferencing, but Walters said there are still more families to poll.
Despite the social distancing requirements, any time social workers believe a child may be at imminent risk, they make face-to-face contact, said Morris, the human services department spokeswoman.
Morris said the agency holds daily calls with the social services directors across the state to evaluate challenges and find appropriate responses. Services are continually being adapted, and staff members are “doing their very best to help keep Marylanders and each other safe.”
“This is a fluid situation, requiring changes in policy and practice from day to day and minute to minute, at times,” Morris said.
At Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Baltimore County — where volunteers appointed by judges advocate for the best interests of kids in foster care — volunteers are trying to increase communication with youth to help them feel supported.
“Kids in care already feel isolated,” said executive director Jennifer Stine. “They already feel vulnerable and separated.”
Another risk of the isolation is a potential rise in the viewing of sexually abusive images of children, because of the extra time people are spending online, said Elizabeth J. Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Sexual abuse perpetrated by someone outside the family household would likely decrease during this time, but children could be at increased risk if their abuser is within the family due to the time spent at home, she said.
Letourneau said that while “we don’t want adults to walk around with constant feelings of suspicion,” awareness of abuse and talking to kids about these issues is key.
Advocates are worried, too, about the emotional hardship on children.
Foster parents who get sick or lose their jobs may ask for the children in their care to be removed and placed in another home, which could leave children feeling abandoned and scared.
The delay in court proceedings also means it will take longer in many cases for children to be reunified with their parents or have their adoptions finalized. The postponements are expected to create a backlog when the courts do reopen.
Chapman, of the National Center for Children and Families, said she worries about the heartache that will be felt by families kept apart longer than they otherwise would be. For a mother on track to get her kids back from foster care, the outbreak could shake her foothold with the loss of a job or an inability to pay rent.
“If they were poor before COVID, what do you think is happening to them now?” Chapman said.
“If a child is removed from a family, they still have rights to a relationship with them until the courts say no. That is a journey and a process.”
As the child welfare system and its many workers are adapting rapidly to meet the needs, Soronen, of the Dave Thomas Foundation, said family members, friends and neighbors can also step up to ease the strain. Besides calling authorities when a child is in danger, people can drop off meals, offer to entertain a child with a virtual visit or send a letter or a gift in the mail.
“If you know a neighbor is fostering or a neighbor is taking care of their grandchildren, offer to do something,” she said.
No child should face the COVID-19 crisis or any other without the love and support of a permanent family. Give now to help find adoptive homes for children waiting in foster care.