Opportunities for the Child Welfare System from the COVID-19 Pandemic
COVID-19 is presenting the child welfare system with an opportunity to rethink existing practices and refocus on priorities. Remote learning, business restrictions, and operational changes have been challenging for those serving and caring for children. For parents who were already struggling, these changes have been devastating. For children, these changes may also mean fewer traditional safety mechanisms for children in at-risk situations. At the same time, the child protection system has an opportunity to adapt and improve the organic safety network.
Decrease in Reporting
Reports of neglect and abuse during COVID-19 have dropped over the course of the pandemic. It is unclear whether this drop reflects a drop in cases of abuse and neglect, or reflects a drop in detection. Teachers and mandatory reporters do not have direct contact with children as they did before. Oftentimes caregivers, neighbors, and community members do not know what steps to take or who to call if they suspect abuse and neglect. They may also fear retaliation or violence from the parents if they report a suspected problem.
Reporting remains the central mechanism to protect children from abuse and neglect. In Texas, anyone with cause to believe a child has been adversely affected by abuse or neglect is required to report. The legal definitions of abuse and neglect can be found here. Reports can be made online or over the phone.
Changes in Reporting
Reporting child abuse and neglect is no less crucial than it was a year ago. On the contrary, it may even be more vital to the well-being of children experiencing more risk at home. However, teachers, school counselors, and healthcare professionals (the most frequent reporters) have had less direct contact with children as a result of the pandemic. Those opportunities still have not returned to pre-pandemic levels and, in some cases, have become virtual.
Existing training on recognizing and reporting abuse and neglect assumes in-person observation – and, oftentimes, even repeated observation to recognize changes. Changes in behavior that may have signaled abuse and neglect in the past may be a normal reaction to fear, uncertainty, and isolation related to the pandemic. At the same time, such behaviors are more difficult to interpret over a virtual platform. Training must be adapted to the current realities and tightened to recognize specific signs and ignore all the noise related to the pandemic.
Increased Parental Stress and Risk
With isolation, job insecurity, and social distancing comes risks of increased depression, anxiety, and abuse. Some parents lack adequate coping skills and supports. An inability to cope with these stressors combined with a lack of support may manifest itself in many ways that are potentially harmful to children. Situational stress may lead to isolated instances of frustration and violence. Parents may lash out and become abusive when they may not have been in the past. Likewise, existing mental health or substance use disorders are exacerbated by stress and isolation. Adequate parents may suddenly become neglectful as access to support and treatment become more difficult.
Supports available to parents have shifted from formal structures and programs to informal relationships. In the face of COVD-19, our world suddenly became smaller and close relationships (i.e., family, neighbor, church) became more significant. Those informal supports are often neglected in government planning but we have seen they may be more sustainable in tough times.
Although challenging, COVID-19 is presenting the child welfare system with an opportunity to rethink existing practices and refocus on priorities. Children should remain the top priority, but safety has now taken on many meanings. Training on recognizing and reporting child abuse and neglect should become more specific. Parents need more support than ever. However, formal support systems (i.e., government programs) were more affected by COVID-19 than informal supports (i.e., family, neighbors, community). We should reexamine the important role of informal supports and how to reinforce sustainable community networks.
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