Poverty & Safety Net
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Coronavirus and child welfare

April 10, 2020
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In a previous piece, I highlighted the challenges of preparing for parenthood under the extenuating circumstances a pandemic provides, however, many alternative challenges endure for existing families who may be struggling to reunite or stay together.  

In light of the opioid use epidemic, every stage of the child welfare system in nearly every state has been overwhelmed including Ohio’s, where the number of children in care on a daily basis has risen from between 12,000 and 13,000 in 2012 to 16,000 today. [1]

 The number of children in care on a daily basis has risen from between 12,000 and 13,000 in 2012 to 16,000 today.

Most cases reported to Child Protective Services involve neglect as opposed to abuse. The inability to pay rent or provide shelter, maintain utilities, provide adequate amounts of food or clothing all fall under the guise of neglect and thus families in poverty have historically made up a majority of the cases in the child welfare system. Due to social distancing guidelines and an ever-changing stay-at-home order, unemployment numbers are rising rapidly by the day as those who worked in industries like service, child care and airlines just to name a few — are being laid off, furloughed and in some cases fired. This can greatly affect custodial parents who relied on the child-support payments of now unemployed non-custodial parents to provide essential needs for their children. While much is being done daily on both the federal and state levels to aid individuals and families in need — such as the issuance of stimulus checks and suspending all Medicaid redeterminations — many low-wage workers currently don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Ohio’s earnings test requires claimants to average $269 a week over at least 20 weeks, therefore individuals who previously earned minimum wage and worked 30 hours a week would not qualify for unemployment if they lost their jobs. Families who were formerly able scrape by may now be faced with financial uncertainty and concern over whether they will be able to keep their families together.

 Families who were formerly able scrape by may now be faced with financial uncertainty and concern over whether they will be able to keep their families together.

Individuals deemed “essential employees” in the stay-at-home order who are unable to work from home and may have previously relied on school and after-school programs to provide care for their children are facing abrupt choices. Since most day care centers are closed unless they have a Temporary Pandemic Child Care License – licenses that are severely limited — it can be nearly impossible to locate one that isn’t full. In the case parents can find one, day care is an expense many parents did not and can not budget for. Many parents may consider leaving younger child(ren) home alone so they can continue working, which may leave them facing a child protective services agency later.  

For some children, at home with their families is the least safe place they can be during this time. Child safety advocates say that child abuse and neglect rises and reports of it fall when children are out of school for summer and holiday breaks. Fewer eyes on children, due to the absence of the teachers, coaches and child care workers who usually interact with them regularly, coupled with the rising stress parents are facing due to economic instability, homeschooling and general anxiety over health, children are at a heightened risk of experiencing unanticipated side effects of a pandemic.

 The rising stress parents are facing due to economic instability, homeschooling and general anxiety over health, children are at a heightened risk of experiencing unanticipated side effects of a pandemic.

Social workers, on the front lines of the child welfare system, who were already dealing with unprecedented caseloads often with insufficient resources, are at significant risk as they are in and out of homes every day as part of their jobs. While some duties, like monthly check-ins with children whose cases they manage, can be conducted virtually, investigating abuse and neglect in homes often must occur in person. A potential shortage of social workers is inevitable as the turnover rate was already higher than average due to burnout. [3] This turnover problem is now coupled with the fact that many child welfare workers must stay home with their children, may be facing quarantine themselves and recent graduates who want to enter the profession are facing delayed tests and background checks. All of this had combined to cause more strain on the system and will leave more children susceptible to hardship and harm.

 A potential shortage of social workers is inevitable as the turnover rate was already higher than average due to burnout.

Foster parents are also finite, and because many foster parents are older adults and therefore at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, they may be unwilling to take on new children and may hesitate to allow children they are currently fostering back into their homes after they’ve had visitation with their birth families due to the risk of exposure. Additionally, there is concern about placements for children who have either been exposed to COVID-19 and must be quarantined for 14 days or children who have already tested positive and must also be quarantined. Individuals previously interested in becoming foster parents are now in limbo as the courses, inspections, interviews and placements are all but at a stand-still during the pandemic. Foster parents who choose to continue providing for children however, are struggling to maintain contact with birth parents who were used to regular visits with their children. We recommend that foster parents be extra understanding and communicative with birth parents to help ease this strain.

 We recommend that foster parents be extra understanding and communicative with birth parents to help ease this strain.

For families who were navigating the child welfare system before the pandemic, most everything has come to a halt. All the courts in the state are issuing continuances until the stay-at-home order is lifted and will only issue decisions in cases of emergency. That means parents who were working towards establishing or reestablishing custody are now waiting indefinitely to be reunited. Parents who had requirements to fulfill to reunite their families, such as parenting classes, anger management or supervised visitation, now don’t have the opportunity to fulfill any court order which will prolong family reconciliation.

 Parents who were working towards establishing or reestablishing custody are now waiting indefinitely to be reunited.

Families of all shapes and sizes need additional reassurance and encouragement during this time as being away from parents, children or siblings can have long-lasting negative effects on relationships, mental health and even Adverse Childhood Experiences scores. We recommend in trying to maintain regular routines, caregivers try to continue all behavioral health appointments for themselves and children in their care through mechanisms like telehealth. As featured in a previous piece, telehealth can help to preserve standing non-life threatening appointments while also helping to limit the spread of COVID-19.  

While it’s too early to assess the novel coronavirus’ true impact on the child welfare system, we do know that it will be a considerable one and much will need to be done to alleviate the impact on the state’s most vulnerable population.  

To lessen this burden, we recommend caregivers prioritize talking with children about the coronavirus to not only help them make sense of what they hear and to answer questions, but also to ensure they are aware of everyday actions they can take to help reduce the spread. Below are some resources recommended by the National Association of Counsel for Children that are age appropriate and can aide in kicking off conversation:

  1. Public Children Services Association of Ohio. https://www.pcsao.org/pdf/factbook/2019/Front.pdf
  2. Casey Family Programs. https://www.casey.org/state-data/
  3. https://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/gov-social-workers-turnover.html
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