The past few weeks have been difficult for Allison, a single mother in California with all seven of her children (ranging in age from two to 12) at home. She adopted six out of foster care, and she hoped to finalize the adoption of the seventh this month. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, though, her court date was postponed. Her youngest child remains under the state’s legal custody, and a caseworker checks on him regularly. Since visitation centers are closed, Allison and the social worker have agreed to conduct the visits while “social distancing” outside her house. “The caseworker stood out on the sidewalk,” Allison says. “I had to strip my son on the doorstep so they could check his body [for any signs of abuse].”
So far, Allison and her family are among the lucky ones; no one is sick or in immediate danger. But the coronavirus is likely to strain a system already at a breaking point in many places. Reports of serious child-abuse cases are increasing. Doctors at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, reported six cases of severe abuse in one week, all of kids under four years old. It usually sees that total in one month. “People have so much increased stress right now,” says Cook’s medical director Jayme Coffman. “They’ve got financial stress. Some people have lost their jobs or are worried about keeping their jobs. They’ve lost income. You’ve got stress from being overcrowded. Everyone’s cooped up together. They feel like they can’t get away from each other. These stressors can lead to abuse.”
One of the main ways that we find out about child abuse and neglect is from teachers’ reports. With schools closed, this source is not available. Debi Grebenik, who directed Maple Star Colorado, a foster-care agency, for 17 years, says that states will probably see a drop in the number of reports, followed by a big spike when things get back to normal. “I think that a lot of counties are very aware of that and are gearing up.”
But reports of abuse and neglect are still coming in from other sources, and the question remains how child protective-service (CPS) workers will deal with these. Jessica Peck, a Colorado family lawyer whose practice centers on “kids in crisis,” is handling a custody dispute in which a child has credibly accused a third party of sexually abusing her while she stayed with her mother in Virginia. Generally, an investigator sees the child within 72 hours. But Peck just received word that the local CPS has cancelled all forensic interviews. Putting off these interviews may not only mean leaving children in dangerous situations but also losing crucial evidence. “I’m worried about having cases dismissed or having people wrongly convicted,” Peck said.
In another case, Peck called CPS about a girl who found her grandfather’s body after he committed suicide. Peck is worried about the adults who are caring for her. She may soon ask for a protective order, though state authorities say that it is “not an emergency situation.”
Many of the situations that CPS handles are dangerous and fully qualify as emergencies, though caseworkers often don’t see themselves as emergency responders and haven’t been trained in the precautionary measures that law enforcement, EMS workers, or firefighters learn. Once we get out of this crisis, we must clarify CPS’s role. We should be recruiting CPS workers with emergencies in mind.
Even when investigations are completed, families are facing lengthy delays in family court—even longer than usual, and not just for matters like finalizing adoptions but also for determinations of whether an emergency removal was justified or whether a child can go back to his or her biological family. Rita Sorenen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, explains: “Whether it’s discovery of abuse or getting kids to permanency . . . time is exactly what these children don’t have.”
Many foster families will have to close their homes to new placements in the coming months in order to protect the biological or foster children for whom they are already caring. Other families may be reluctant to volunteer, which may make the foster home shortage even more acute. Yet some positive signs are showing, too. Hope Forti, who runs a program called Foster Neighbors, which matches volunteers with foster families and families reunified after their kids were placed in foster care, has seen an uptick in offers to help. Volunteers have been delivering groceries and supplies. “These volunteers are willing to go to three different Wal-Marts to find baby wipes because the first two are out,” says Forti. And they have been fundraising to get these families some emergency cash. “The system will need those of us who have reserves to get through a crisis to step up and be involved with families, whatever stage they’re at,” notes Forti. “A lot of us have something to offer.”