At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the processes and procedures that support DC's child welfare systems halted, raising concerns among advocates, medical professionals and domestic violence experts that the public health emergency's stress, trauma and economic uncertainty might result in an increase in child abuse. This concern is also paired with the concern that child abuse may be underreported during the pandemic because stay-at-home orders and virtual learning mean that children spend less time around mandated reporters like school teachers.
At CLC, we believe that DC families involved in the child welfare system should have access to all the critical resources they need, including more COVID-related assistance, and that the District must strengthen and further invest in its child welfare system -- particularly during this difficult time:
Family court hearings were suspended and proceedings became more backlogged. Social workers struggled to safely enter homes for welfare checks. And abuse referrals to the CFSA hotline plummeted, even as parents and children spent more time than ever at home together. Collecting data about child abuse and neglect is difficult because so many cases remain unknown and undocumented. D.C. officials who work with child abuse and neglect see the drop in CFSA hotline calls and are haunted by untold stories that the pandemic has hidden from public view.
As soon as the pandemic started, Dr. Allison Jackson, division chief of the Child and Adolescent Protection Center at Children’s National Hospital, says she worried about the children who would now be out of sight. Jackson’s concern was warranted: Referral calls to CFSA decreased significantly at the beginning of the pandemic, but her team’s caseload of children with abuse injuries nearly doubled.
Tami Weerasingha-Cote, senior policy attorney at Children’s Law Center and a resident of the District, also testified during CFSA’s performance oversight hearing. Weerasingha-Cote’s testimony described CFSA’s “continued struggle to provide stable placement for foster care children” during the pandemic. The testimony described CFSA doing the best it could with the precarious situation in which the pandemic placed foster youth.
“Many of D.C.’s resource parents work jobs that lack the flexibility to work from home. For these families, it has been particularly difficult to oversee and support virtual instruction,” Weerasingha-Cote wrote in her testimony.
Photo credit: Scratchboard illustration by Julia Terbrock/Washington City Paper