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A chorus of child and family advocates is warning that state and local governments aren’t doing all they can to prevent or prepare for a potential surge of families coming into the child welfare system as a result of the coronavirus pandemic -- and a crisis could result as new cases and a backlog of old ones compete for attention.
“We’re in danger of seeing a large number of families that are going to struggle with basic needs,” said Kara Finck, who directs the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at Penn Law, “who should be treated with concrete supports and resources and not enmeshed in the child welfare system.”
Increased unemployment, say advocates, means families face new or deeper financial worries, a stressor long correlated with child abuse. Shelter-in-place and social distancing mandates -- including the need to remain home, avoid crowds, and stay at least six feet from other people -- could also heighten stress for parents who can’t get a break from their kids.
The result, for children, could be dangerous.
“Kids are not being seen by the teachers, daycare providers, and school nurses, who are required by law to report any suspected child abuse,” said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, which promotes the physical and mental well-being of children.
The lack of contact with these mandated reporters has already caused a roughly 70% reduction in calls to state and local abuse hotlines. Advocates like Palm worry that some cases will be missed and a rush of reports might flood in when mandated reporters begin interacting with kids again.
But a closer look at the issue suggests the right interventions could stem or prevent a crisis for kids and families.
Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services is responsible for investigating possible cases of child abuse and neglect, triaging some kids to support services and removing others from their homes and into foster care.
When asked how DHS is preparing for a rush of cases later, Deputy Commissioner Sam Harrison III said, “We’re not going to engage in conjecture about what things might look like in three or four months.”
“We feel good about our capacity to handle a large volume” of cases, he added.
City DHS spokesperson Heather Keafer said DHS is focused at the moment on how to provide services during the current shutdown.
Waiting to see what manifests later, however, strikes child and family advocates as potentially dangerous.
“Planning for future needs remains essential, and we are seeing the results of our shared failure to plan” for a system-straining event like this one, says Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which trains volunteer attorneys to represent children in court. “Every institution should find the time to plan for the next wave of the virus.”
Cervone notes that the backlog of issues for DHS to handle is mounting: During the pandemic, services crucial to the family reunification process, such as in-person family visits and “team” meetings between families and social workers, were suspended. Status hearings for the city’s foster youth, in which they can express their needs to a judge, have also been halted. About 1,400 of these hearings would typically have been held in this time frame.
Catching up on this old business and dealing with a possible spike in new cases, says Cervone, will be a challenge.
The best way to get ahead of the problem is to provide additional support for families.
City DHS spokesperson Heather Keafer states notes that, earlier this month, Mayor Jim Kenney sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking Congress, as part of its Covid-19 relief efforts, to provide “direct and flexible funding” to local governments, including housing, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which can pay for shelter, utilities and food.
The city could also receive additional assistance from state government, and child and family advocates are pointing to California for inspiration, where governor Gavin Newsom announced $42 million in funding to protect foster youth and families, making money available for housing, food and additional support, including $3 million for the state’s Family Resource Centers, which connect families to government resources.
Pennsylvania has taken some steps in this direction, such as expediting the process to enroll in SNAP, a nutrition program, but hasn’t announced anything so ambitious as California.
Mark E. Courtney, a longtime child welfare researcher and professor at the University of Chicago school of social service administration, says California’s approach looks right to him. “You can eliminate most of the increased risk of child maltreatment if you make sure there are robust and accessible services available, to help parents with their needs, so they know they will not lose their home in a month or two.”
According to federal data, more than half the children who suffer from maltreatment are victims of neglect, which critics of the child welfare system say is attributable to poverty rather than any lack of love or care. And with unemployment rising by 1.5 million in the state, 26.5 million nationally, poverty rates will increase.
“The danger is that we’ll end up with families being needlessly separated, at greater cost to them and society, than if we provided some financial support," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
History also suggests, Wexler noted, that failing to provide those supports will disproportionately hurt minorities, who are statistically more likely to be reported to child welfare services and face child removal.
Dr. Marita E. Lind, of the Penn State Health Child Protection Program, says government agencies need to plan for a possible increase in need for services in drug and alcohol rehab, parenting classes, and more.
“We need to be proactive rather than reactive,” she said. "And consider that every dollar spent on support is a preventive service,” potentially stopping kids from being abused.
Keafer, at DHS, responds that the city is holding frequent meetings with child advocates to hear their concerns, and state and city health agencies to form a budget that will help them navigate the current crisis and whatever comes after.
The question, though, is if child welfare agencies as they are currently constituted are equipped to take on additional work.
The city funds CUAs, according to Keafer, the DHS spokesperson, at a rate of 10 cases per case manager. That ratio, if fully staffed, would be in line with recommended best practices.
But that isn't always possible. David Fair, a deputy CEO at Turning Points for Children, a so-called Community Umbrella Agency, part of a network of agencies the city contracts to provide social services to kids and families, said employee turnover is a perpetual issue in child welfare, so caseloads often run much higher in practice — up to 17 per worker, in some instances.
Cervone, too, of the Support Center, notes regular “service gaps” for kids and families as the system struggles to replace departing social workers. And that's the case before the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are fully felt.
The city is coordinating food sites, student meal sites and efforts to provide free baby supplies to try and alleviate the stress on families, according to Keafer.
Efforts by Pa.’s DHS to promote preventive services have been limited. There was a recent press release and conference call in which the phone numbers for various service agencies were listed.
The state is beginning, however, a more ambitious social media and advertising campaign to promote its hotline number to report suspected child abuse.
But that focus, say advocates, is like running downstream to catch drowning children and families, rather than running upstream to stop them from falling in the water.
Advertising, said Courtney, the veteran child welfare researcher, should target parents — and try to intercede before kids are abused in the first place.
“The ads could express understanding,” said Courtney, “that parents in general might be feeling additional stress right now, and here are numbers you can call for resources that will help… and then of course you need to have the robust supports and services available that would really make the difference.”
Here are some resources for families:
- PA.’s support and referral helpline provides emotional support with skilled caseworkers: 1-855-284-2494.
- The United Way operates 2-1-1, connecting people and families to local resources that can help during the public health crisis.
“Our Kids” is a project of the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative examining the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia’s foster care system. Philadelphia Weekly apart of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among 23 news organizations, focused on Philadelphia’s push towards economic justice. Read more of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.