More efforts needed to encourage child abuse reporting during pandemic

CFSAhotlineSocial distancing is essential to break the back of  the coronavirus pandemic. But for children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, social distancing can mean being cut off from the people who might see and report their situation. The District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), like other agencies around the country, has recognized the problem. However, its response should be strengthened in order to check in with isolated children before schools close on May 29.

All DC public schools (DCPS) and public charter schools closed on March 16. Public schools resumed on March 24 and charter schools on various dates with instruction taking place by distance learning. Distance learning will continue until DCPS schools close on May 29, weeks before the regular closing date. Each public charter school is selecting its own end-of-year closing date.

We do not know how many children are logging on but we know there are problems. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the digital divide that already affected the District. This divide coincides with discrepancies in income, parental education, time and many other resources affecting children. DCPS estimates that 30% of its students lack a computer and/or access to the internet at home. As the Washington Post has reported, schools, nonprofits and activists have been trying to fill the gap but have not reached all the children who need help getting connected with their schools.

The results of the digital divide are clear. The Washington Teachers’ Union surveyed its teachers in April and received responses from about half of all teachers, as reported in the Washington Post. Of the respondents, 57 percent said that less than half of their students were participating in virtual education. Not surprisingly, teachers at richer and more selective schools reported strong attendance in remote education. DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee told the Post that “Ninety-six percent of our students have engaged in some way….And those are the key words here: ‘in some way.’ . . . Instead of logging into a learning session, a student may be doing virtual meetings with a counselor or a school psychologist.” But we have no idea how much contact those 96 percent of students have had with their schools. Was it one virtual contact or ongoing contact? Without knowing the quality or frequency of the contact, this figure is not very helpful, except to raise extreme concerns about the four percent of students who have had no contact with their schools since the shutdown.

Unfortunately, many of the children without computers and internet are also the most at risk for abuse and neglect due to poverty, parental drug abuse, domestic violence, or parental mental illness. Taking these children out of  school cuts them off from the main group of professionals on whom we rely to report their concerns about child abuse and neglect to child welfare agencies.

Hotline data show the impact of this loss of contact. CFSA reports that between March 16 and April 18 of 2020, it received 897 hotline calls, with 30 percent coming from school personnel. During the same period last year, the agency received 2,356 hotline calls, with 52 percent coming from school personnel, according to CFSA Communications Director Kera Tyler. Clearly both the number and proportion of calls coming from schools have declined greatly, but so has the number of calls coming from other sources. This is not surprising since other major reporters, like medical personnel and extended family members, are also less likely to see children during this period of social distancing. 

At the same time as hotline calls have drastically decreased, severe child abuse appears to be increasing. The Washington Post reports that “the overall number of children referred to Children’s National Medical Center with child abuse concerns has dropped. But the cases coming in are more severe than usual: From March 15 through April 20 of last year, about 50 percent of the children had injuries serious enough to be hospitalized. This year, 86 percent did. During the same period last year, about 34 percent of children had head trauma, fractures, or injuries in multiple areas of the body. This year, that number jumped to 71 percent. Last year, 3 percent of the children referred for child abuse died. This year, 10 percent died.” While teachers are unable to reach a student, serious injury or death is the worst-case scenario but they also worry about children being hurt, going hungry, and suffering other types of abuse or neglect.

On April 13, 2020, CFSA issued new guidance to educators who are concerned about their inability to contact some students. The guidelines create a dichotomy. between “contact concerns” and “safety concerns.” For children of any age for whom there are safety concerns, educators are directed to call the CPS hotline. For children aged 0-4 and 14-18 for whom there are “contact concerns,” educators are also directed to call the hotline.

But for children aged 5-13, there is a different procedure for when a school “determines it has not had sufficient contact with a student, and there is no evidence the student has engaged in distance learning.” In such cases, schools are directed to attempt to reach the student’s friends and emergency contacts and to use calls and postcards to contact the student and family members. After ten days of such efforts, schools that have been unsuccessful in reaching a student are instructed to complete a reporting form to CFSA. The guidance warns that any “report that does not document full contact efforts will be denied by CFSA and sent back to the reporting school.” (According to CFSA’s Ms. Tyler, these specific reporting requirements for children aged five to 13 derive from the law that requires reporting of unexcused absences for students in this age group and also from a concern that parents play a more important role in facilitating contact with school than for older children).

In view of the large decline in reports from teachers, one might worry that CFSA seems more concerned with restricting reports from teachers than encouraging them. When we raised this concern with Ms. Tyler, she stressed that the “most important piece of the guidance to note is that if educators have safety concerns for a child of any age, it is mandatory to report those concerns to the hotline.” When the concern is educational, the guidance encourages teachers to use different approaches to reaching students before engaging the hotline.

However, distinguishing between contact concerns and safety concerns is difficult in this time of social isolation. Lack of contact prevents the identification of safety concerns, and long-term lack of contact (when teachers have tried to reach students and their families by phone, email or mail) suggests a child may be in danger. The early closing of schools on May 29 of this year will leave children without even virtual conduct with the most important group of mandatory reporters. CFSA and DCPS should consider new guidance encouraging school staff to report on all students for whom contact has been a concern since the schools reopened in March. This should include all students with whom the schools have not been in touch since school reopened (the four percent mentioned by the Chancellor) as well as any students with whom there has been little or no recent contact and for whom teachers have reason to feel concern. Such guidance should request that schools reach out to these students and their families and to report to the hotline when such efforts have been unsuccessful.

CFSA has been making efforts to encourage other professionals to report. The agency has reached out to agencies like the Metropolitan Police Department and community organizations like the Healthy Families and Thriving Communities collaboratives to serve as “an additional set of eyes and ears” on children. CFSA has asked Child Welfare Monitor DC to share the following message: To help keep children safe during this time, it is imperative for neighbors, family members, and essential workers who still see children to be extra vigilant. CFSA is operating through the pandemic, and our hotline accepts calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Please call 202-671-SAFE[7233] to report child abuse or neglect.

CFSA could be more aggressive in sharing this message. The agency could work with the Mayor to incorporate messaging about child abuse and neglect reporting into her daily press briefings. The agency could try to reach the workers who are still seeing children and families by providing materials to grocery stores, pharmacies, post offices, and food banks to share with their employees informing them of the signs of abuse and neglect and how to report them.

As we approach the end of the school year, the emphasis should shift from setting limits on CPS calls to encouraging educators to reach out to all children and families with whom they have had little or no contact. It is a time for schools and CFSA to team up to check on our most vulnerable children before the the school year ends and the opportunity is lost. And it is also time for CFSA to look for other workers outside schools to take on the role of protectors of our children.

This post was updated on May 13, 2020 to incorporate information from a Washington Post report about school participation during the pandemic. 

Want a national perspective? Check out our national blog, Child Welfare Monitor

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