Across the country, state and county child welfare systems are trying to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, balancing concerns for the safety of the almost 700,000 children who go through the foster care system with the health of the child welfare workers who make visits to make sure they’re alright. But in doing so, children are being deprived of critically important protections.
The federal government, through its Children’s Bureau, sets the child welfare standards that state agencies must meet to qualify for federal funding. As a result of the national crisis concerning the coronavirus, Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Jerry Milner has issued a new interpretation of the federal requirement that requires caseworkers visit children in foster care in-person in the home in which the child is living. Now these visits, which are already failing to occur across many states, and prone to being haphazard when they do, can be conducted through video-conferencing – further jeopardizing already jeopardized child safety.
Caseworker visits are the primary way that the states monitor the safety of children in foster care, and therefore know whether they are in a nurturing foster home or whether they are in a home that locks them in the basement, puts a padlock on the refrigerator, or much worse. Though states are required to meet a number of federal standards to receive funding for their child welfare systems. But caseworker visits are the only check that the state, and in turn the federal government, has to determine whether children are being maltreated in foster care. A shift to virtual video-visits significantly undermines that safeguard.
In addition, the number of reports of potential child maltreatment, either of kids in foster care or at home with their parents, have dropped dramatically since schools were shut down. Many state officials believe that the decline in reports is because the primary reporters are “mandated reporters” such as schoolteachers.
State law sets the standards for maltreatment investigations and all require in-person investigations. But many states, if not all, are allowing some maltreatment reports to be investigated via video conferencing when there is a reason to suspect coronavirus in the home or foster home.
The nation’s foster children, like the rest of their classmates, are not in school, and their parents and foster parents are subject to increasing stress as they are isolated at home, worrying about disappearing jobs and an uncertain future. This situation is ripe for the actual rate of child abuse to skyrocket. Investigations via video-visits will not suffice in determining the threat to safety in a household.
With these new rules, and at federal behest, states are being encouraged to turn their backs on the large numbers of children who will become victims of this pandemic not by catching a disease, but by being abandoned by those who are required to protect them.
At some point, this pandemic will ease and, perhaps, at some point, life will return to normal (or something close to that). But, while we wait for that to happen, far too many children will be irretrievably damaged by the removal of their last safety net, their first responders, the caseworkers who are, and should be, required to visit them regularly in person to investigate reports of abuse and neglect that same way. The states must provide caseworkers with the necessary protective garb to do their job. But the children must come first.
Marcia Robinson Lowry is the executive director of A Better Childhood, a national advocacy organization for abused and neglected children.