A child protective services worker in the Northeast sent a terrifying list of what kept her up at night: “That my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.”
Georgia Boothe, the executive vice president of Children’s Aid, now starts each day in a once-unimaginable bind.
Her nonprofit agency oversees the cases of more than 700 children who New York City’s child welfare officials believe are at risk of abuse or neglect. The stakes are high normally, but now she also must worry about the health of her nearly 300 workers as they make critical home visits.
Will they bring infection to the door or become infected while inside? Many workers must use the bus or subway to see clients. And the visits are required by law. If she misses them, her agency could lose its city contracts, or worse, fail to spot and intervene in a situation that puts a child at risk of harm.
And unlike many workers in other professions, video visits or phone calls by her staff are risky, Boothe said. The remote visits may not offer a full picture of conditions in the home. Many homes are crowded, making people less inclined to speak frankly if they know they can be overheard.
She said conditions in troubled homes could easily deteriorate without proper support from agencies like hers — even without the added stress of the global pandemic that is robbing many families of jobs and child care.
“Neglect happens because people make difficult decisions due to a lack of resources,” she said. Families will struggle if relatives become sick, she said, or parents may leave children unsupervised to go to work
On Friday, the Administration for Children’s Services told Boothe her staff could only use video calls if either the families or specific staff members were currently experiencing symptoms that could be related to COVID-19 or had underlying health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to it.
Her agency can use its discretion, and Boothe is worried that she might lose workers under those terms, which will put additional pressure on those who remain.
Ronald Richter led New York City’s child welfare agency during Superstorm Sandy. Now he is at the helm of the Jewish Child Care Association, one of the city’s largest providers of foster care and other services for kids and families in need.
“With Sandy you could take to the streets and address urgent human needs like food, medicine and finding alternate places to live,” he said. “This feels like you are constantly waiting for guidance about how to engage in mandated services, but you are hamstrung in that you are trying to engage in human services without human contact.”
He regards his staff as first responders to children in crisis, but right now, he said, they lack basic supplies to function that way.
Like Boothe, Richter worries about the infection risk for his workers. But while his agency received some personal protective equipment supplies this week, they are already running low, he said.
“We’re not nearly in the position that we need to be for the long haul of this,” Richter said.
The stress on his workers and their families is growing, too. The city has set up free child care for health care workers in light of the school closures, but as of Friday, there was no clarity on whether front-line child welfare workers would also qualify for it.
In response to questions, Administration for Children’s Services spokeswoman Chanel Caraway said in a statement that the health and safety of child welfare workers and their clients are a “top priority” and that the agency is “currently working with input from our State oversight agency on guidance that will allow for more flexibility when it comes to conducting home visits to ensure children are safe.”
In Washington, D.C., Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center, said the closure of schools is having dangerous consequences for children, starting with hunger. There are normally 200 schools serving two free meals a day to kids throughout the nation’s capital, she said. But, as of Tuesday, all were closed and only 20 continued to serve food.
“Not every family can get to one of those schools,” she said. “If parents are at work during the hours that it’s open, kids may not be able to go on their own.”
She said she understood the need for the closures, but that it removed a crucial safety net for at-risk children. Teachers and school employees are often the first to see signs of abuse and neglect, such as bruises, cuts or signs of malnourishment, and they are legally required to report such concerns to authorities. Without them, those problems could go unnoticed, she said.
Sandalow predicted that COVID-19 will cause “very significant negative costs in the form of child abuse, domestic violence, hunger and long-term educational and behavioral health problems.”
In Texas, doctors at the Cook Children’s Health Care System saw a sudden spike in severe child abuse cases this week, six children under the age four, which they suspect are linked to stresses from the pandemic. Christi Thornhill, director of the system’s trauma program, said “We knew an increase was going to occur, but this happened faster than we ever imagined.”