Testimony on the Mayor’s Budget for the Child and Family Services Agency

Below is Child Welfare Monitor DC’s testimony to the Committee on Human Services of the DC Council regarding the Mayor’s revised 2021 budget for the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).

I write this testimony with a heavy heart. By the time it is read, the District’s public schools will have closed for the summer, and with them closes the last window of opportunity we had to identify some of the abused and neglected children who have been suffering in silence since the schools closed on March 16. It is my hope that the Committee will allocate new funding for a publicity campaign to enlist members of the public to report suspected abuse and neglect among our isolated and unprotected children..

My name is Marie Cohen, and I am an advocate for children in the District of Columbia and nationwide. I write two blogs, Child Welfare Monitor and Child Welfare Monitor DC. I am a former social worker in the District’s foster care system, a former member of the Citizen Review Panel, and a current member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee.

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the increased danger facing abused and neglected children during this period of social isolation. A pandemic is likely to increase abuse and neglect through multiple pathways. Parents stressed due to job loss, fear of illness, and close quarters with children home from school are more likely to lash out in abusive ways. Parents who have to go to work, or who get sick may leave children unsupervised or in the care of abusive or unqualified caregivers. History demonstrates that child maltreatment increases during natural and economic disasters.

And indeed, data from DC’s Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) suggest that severe child abuse is increasing in the District. As Chairperson Nadeau discussed at the budget hearing, The Washington Post reported that the number of children coming into Children’s National Medical center with abuse concerns has dropped while the percentage of severe cases has increased. 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. The percentage of children with head trauma, fractures, or injuries in multiple areas of the body doubled. And the percentage of children who died increased from three to ten percent.

At the same time, as Chairperson Nadeau also mentioned, reports to CFSA’s child abuse hotline have decreased dramatically. 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. 

In light of the dangerous situation facing so many of our children, I urged CFSA to work with DC schools in order to identify and check up on children at risk of abuse or neglect, especially those who have not had any contact with their schools, before schools closed for the summer. Sadly, the agency did not follow my recommendations. Schools will close without a concerted effort to identify the children who are being abused and neglected at home. 

At the Committee on Human Services budget hearing on May 26, Chairperson Nadeau asked CFSA Director Brenda Donald how the agency was trying to get to these unreported cases of child abuse and neglect. The Director responded to this question with marginally relevant anecdote about a sharp-eyed teacher who identified a mother with symptoms of Covid-19 who needed medical attention. Seemingly unaware that schools were closing three days later, she stated that CFSA is “working with” the schools on protocols for when teachers should reach out. She appeared not to know that these protocols were published more than a month ago, and there certainly is no time to “work on” them now. Unfortunately, those protocols, as discussed in my blog, seemed to be more dedicated to limiting hotline calls than encouraging them. Director Donald had nothing else to offer other than asking those who watched the hearing to be vigilant about reporting child abuse and neglect. 

Now that schools are closing, we must find another way to identify the silent victims of abuse and neglect. I hope you will consider adding money to the budget for a publicity campaign urging all community members to report suspected abuse or neglect to CFSA’s hotline. This campaign should use ads on buses, bus shelters, and Metro stations, as well as flyers to be distributed around the community. These messages could picture a child with the words, “You are his/her only hope” and information about the hotline. There should be special messaging targeted to the workers most likely to see children, including grocery and pharmacy workers. This message should also be incorporated into the Mayor’s briefings and the city’s website, coronavirus.dc.gov.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to submit written testimony. I would be happy to work with you in developing the specifications for new budget allocations for a publicity campaign around child maltreatment reporting. Our vulnerable children deserve no less.

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