Questioning the Inevitability of a Child Welfare Surge

Paul DiLorenzo, interim executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance.

A number of child welfare professionals and advocates are predicting a surge of cases as states begin to see a reduction in stay at home restrictions. The thinking is that large numbers of children who are currently hidden from the eyes of those most likely to report signs of suspected abuse or neglect, will be seen again by teachers, day care and recreational professionals. Whereas right now, children of all ages have no reliable outlet for telling their stories, nor can they be observed by adults who can set in motion an investigation or assessment of a family.

But there might be a few flaws in the argument that there is a wave of cases waiting for us when we “return to normal.” First off, because of the unprecedented nature of this situation, we do not really know what that return might look like, nor how or when it will occur. No one is expecting to turn on a switch that takes us back to our pre-COVID lives. That could take months and many iterations of service delivery before we return to our previous processes. And since we anticipate that some jurisdictions will be more likely to open up before others, we can’t know for sure if proportional surges will come in a large metro area like New York or in rural settings, where the pandemic has been less ravaging.

We should also consider that during this time, there has not been a total lack of support service or monitoring of families known to child welfare agencies. Agencies are functioning, albeit in a less robust fashion. Those of us leading child protection agencies have not gone underground, and we are not ignoring families.

We know that social isolation is one of the greatest threats to children whose families are already fragile. The reality is that the child welfare agencies our center works with are adapting and looking for the best possible balance with supporting families, protecting children and keeping staff safe and healthy.

Finally, one has to question: what data do we have that leads us with any certainty to the conclusion that cases will pour into the system? There will undoubtedly be a backlog of existing cases that will require closer attention. And it is very possible that with increased scrutiny, the volume of cases will begin to pick up again. That seems to be a simple matter of mathematics, but it should not necessarily be a cautionary tale about impending doom for the system or for children.

As we think about the return of business as usual, we should ask ourselves, do we really want that as the norm? Do the terms surge and influx of cases and massive backlog reflect the type of approach that reflects the renewed systemic interest in prevention and family support? Perhaps there are different paradigm changing challenges and opportunities for which we should prepare?

More likely, we should expect that there could be an entry of families who have traditionally avoided entry into the child welfare system. With the level of social isolation heightened, socio-economic stress and the broader safety net reduced, their vulnerability increases. And so, in the same way we should be prepared for public health emergencies that are widespread, increased levels of family stress should force us to rethink how we address the opportunity of supporting parents and children at an earlier stage and in a more comprehensive, holistic way.

To the question of should we expect a surge — we still don’t know that to be the case. What we do know is that the dramatic erosion of a family’s resources and a fragile social network will take its toll on children and their parents. Maybe we should frame the issue as a concern about families in general and not limit ourselves only to child maltreatment.

Children can only be safe when they live in strong families that are supported by a capable social network — consisting of not just the child welfare system but also many public and private partners. When we beat the drum on any increased number of child welfare cases, we might fail to miss the moment of introspection about our work with families experiencing short- or long-term threats to their viability.

Paul DiLorenzo is the interim executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance.

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