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In the fight against COVID-19, essential workers like healthcare professionals and supermarket attendants have been pivotal in manning the frontlines. One group of essential workers though has been getting less attention from the media despite doing work so vital that the government has deemed them “first responders”— social workers.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, child welfare agencies across the U.S have had to face unimaginable challenges that have affected caseworkers, children and parents alike.
The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in the state of Illinois has implemented work from home procedures to minimize risk, however, caseworkers must still conduct home visits which pose a threat for both the investigators as well as the families.
Phylicia Raines has been a child protection investigator for DCFS for the past nine months and said the virus has placed difficult limitations on how investigators conduct home visits.
“The biggest challenge is the willingness of families to let us in the house,” Raines said. “A lot of families don’t want strangers in their house because of the virus, which is completely understandable, so for some cases we don’t even get to see the home environment.”
Raines said she has had to conduct some of her home visits and interviews through a screen door, which prevents her from seeing the full scope of things.
“If we stay outside of the house, we miss a lot of things because we don’t know what is going on inside the house,” Raines said.
If the family is willing to let investigators in, Raines said they are required to ask about COVID-19 before entering the home. They also have to wear protective masks and gloves and must remain six feet apart from the family members.
“Before I go in, I always ask the pre-screening questions like ‘Is anyone sick? Has anyone had contact with someone that has been diagnosed or has been traveling?’ just to keep me safe,” Raines said.
Both the families and the caseworks risk exposure to the virus during these home visits, but investigators are legally required to make a visit for every call and every report that is made, Raines said.
“There is increased stress about getting sick for the families and also for the workers,” Raines said. “I am nervous about catching it and staying healthy.”
Due to the requirement of pre-screening questions, investigators are also losing the element of surprise with home visits, said Holly Anderson, a child protection investigator for DCFS. Anderson has been working for DCFS in Illinois for about 10 years and says it is really important to go on visits unannounced. With coronavirus though, that is not possible.
“Often times, we did visits at the schools because the kids would be there and the parents wouldn’t be. We could interview them without any influence from the alleged perpetrators,” Anderson. “However, that is no longer an option and now we have to call families before we go in, which is unfortunate because what parent isn’t going to try and remedy the situation as quickly as they can— cleaning the house or putting makeup on the child’s bruise.”
Another concern facing the child welfare industry is that with school’s temporarily closed, there will be fewer cases of abuse reported as children are losing their daily interactions with teachers and other mandated reporters. Social workers fear abuse may go undetected during this time.
“My biggest concern is the vulnerability of the children because they are not out in the community at this time and the calls have reduced quite a bit as they are not being seen by schools or doctors or their friends,” Anderson said.
Anderson said each caseworker normally receives two to four reports per day and now they receive only about three a week as a majority of their reports come from schools.
“I’m seeing studies that have come out where domestic violence has increased, but unfortunately our calls have decreased in terms of reports from schools, which were kind of their safety hubs,” Anderson said.
Colleen Sanna, a second grade teacher at Alice Gustafson Elementary School in Batavia, IL, has used the hotline in the past to report signs of abuse that she noticed with her students. Now, however, she said it is difficult to know what is happening on the home front.
“You can’t really make any inferences that abuse or neglect is going on, but you also can’t know in your heart of hearts that it isn’t happening,” Sanna said.
She said that school can act as a safe haven for at-risk kids and that without it, she worries they will be exposed to abuse that she is unable to report on.
“Some of our kids come from a difficult home life and I think that school is a safe place for them where they know they are accepted and kept safe and loved,” Sanna said. “They can no longer go to that safe place.”
Sanna has continued to educate her students virtually via Zoom calls and Google Meets, but said that some students, most commonly those with less involved parents, have not been taking advantage of those resources.
“You really don’t what is going on with those families and similarly, those parents do not respond to emails,” Sanna said.
As for what teachers can do in the meantime until schools reopen, Sanna encourages connecting with students one-on-one or in small groups via Zoom.
“I do virtual ‘Lunch Bunches’ with the kids’ friend groups because kids may be more apt to share during that time and it’s a non-academic setting,” Sanna said. “Just connecting with the kids so they know that they can talk to you privately or without as many kids around is important. I would promote doing something like that as much as I could.”
The added stress of the pandemic has also increased the risk of abuse as parents are turning to alcohol to cope or taking their stress out on their children, Anderson said. She said that kids being cooped up all day with potential abusers is extremely dangerous.
“People are getting cabin fever,” Anderson said. “There is an increase in drinking which is also a risk for an increase in domestic violence. Some people aren’t getting paid right now too, and stress over finances is another factor that is closely related to child abuse.”
Social workers across the state of Illinois are trying to work through these unanticipated challenges as best they can until they are able to find their new norm, Anderson said, but so far, they feel a little helpless as abuse during this time continues to go undetected and remains out of their control.
“We have to just kind of wait and see,” Anderson said. “But I do worry about the families out there, especially with the limited resources.”