The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed glaring flaws in our child-welfare system. A new report from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting details some of these problems and shows how the lockdowns made many of them more severe.
According to the report, state authorities asked the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services to investigate the causes of deaths or near-deaths of 208 children in fiscal year 2021—a 22 percent increase in cases of suspected abuse from the previous year. Not all these incidents resulted from child abuse, but each was suspicious enough to merit investigation.
The report confirms on a small scale the suspicion that cases of severe child abuse and neglect rose nationwide during the pandemic. Research presented last fall at the virtual American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference also found that the number of children experiencing severe abuse tripled during lockdowns.
Some of the rise in deaths and near-death cases is because kids were not in school, where teachers or other staff might have spotted early danger signs. But given that the vast majority of child deaths were those of toddlers or infants, it’s unlikely that school closures were the main factor in missing these cases. (It’s worth noting that authorities detect some cases of abuse or neglect because the non-school-age victims have older siblings in school whose own signs of abuse prompt an investigation.)
The other major cause in the rise of child-abuse cases is that the pandemic itself worsened the dysfunctions in some families. Kentucky had the fourth-highest rate of overdose deaths in the country between April 2020 and April 2021. Substance abuse was already a major factor driving the child-welfare crisis. The spike in drug abuse and deaths, caused in part by the isolation of lockdowns, has darkened the situation further.
Perhaps the most curious fact from the Kentucky Center’s report is that state authorities have investigated only 73 of the 208 suspicious cases. “Those pending cases are a visceral reminder that the well-documented DCBS [Department of Community-Based Services] workforce issues—which began well before the pandemic—have consequences,” said Kentucky Youth Advocates executive director Terry Brooks. “And in this case, an inadequate staffing at hand for DCBS and those other sectors result in us having far too many questions and far too few answers when it comes to this tragic arena.”
Even pre-pandemic, child-welfare systems were short-staffed, not just in Kentucky but nationwide. A Casey Family Programs report estimates that the average turnover rate at child-welfare agencies in the United States is approximately 30 percent, with some agency rates reaching up to 65 percent. As Sarah Font of Pennsylvania State University notes, these turnovers cost agencies “both financially, through recruitment and training costs, and qualitatively, through having an inexperienced workforce, staff shortages and discontinuity in the relationship between caseworkers and families.”
The pandemic intensified these problems, too. Some workers just didn’t show up. Other states furloughed workers or switched to virtual visits. A 2020 report in the New York Times found that in California, “most child welfare workers are now working from home in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. As a result, records and interviews show, scores of investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect have been delayed or sharply curtailed during the pandemic. . . . In Fresno County . . . about a third of the child welfare staff went on leave as the pandemic spread. Even those who remained on the job generally did work they could manage without leaving their homes.”
Instead of categorizing staffers in these agencies as first responders like police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians, states treated child-welfare investigators as an afterthought. Their compensation and training also reflect this status.
Many leaders in this field are doing little to change that. As the Times noted, “Under pressure from the Service Employees International Union, which represents child welfare workers, the rules governing this oversight were relaxed throughout the state in March to protect workers from the virus. After lobbying from the union, Gov. Gavin Newsom dropped a requirement mandating in-person visits by caseworkers to some 60,000 children in foster care, as well as 14,000 children who remain with their own families after being recently abused or neglected. The policy was in place for more than three months.” The idea that public employees charged with keeping vulnerable children safe can take extended absences during one of the most dangerous periods for children in modern history is a sign of systemic crisis.
Then again, who knows how much better things would have turned out if those staffers were working? According to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, over two-thirds of the child fatalities and near-fatalities in Kentucky in the past five years involved cases already known to child-welfare agencies. In other words, even in cases where investigations are done, caseworkers are making bad decisions about whether children are safe in their homes.
These failures have various causes: poor training of child protective service workers, failure to use data-driven technologies to improve decision-making, and an ideology of family preservation at all costs. But there’s also no doubt that the pandemic—and child-welfare agencies’ response to it—has made everything worse.