Since the pandemic began in March 2020, stay-at-home orders and declining economic conditions for families have caused stressful situations in the home. With schools and workplaces being closed, parents have been working from home and children have been attending virtual school. Although some families may have enjoyed this time together, it could have been some children’s worst nightmare. For children who have abusive parents, staying home from school could have diminished exposure to teachers or adults who may report child abuse and neglect. Some are afraid that when children go back to school in person that the child welfare system may be overwhelmed by the cases that may be reported.
The child welfare system has long struggled with the lack of a clear structure. The system is built upon public agencies, private entities, and community-based organizations that work together to help children in need who face abuse or neglect. However, the United States lacks a clear strategy for addressing these issues. Federal law exist that protect these children; however, the courts face two conflicting priorities when dealing with these cases – child protection and family preservation. The courts want to ensure that children will not be in any imminent harm at the hands of their parents, but there is also research that shows that children do best with their parents and can face negative outcomes if they are removed and placed with another family member, a foster home, or foster parents. These cases typically have fallen into the hands of state or local agencies of Child Protective Services to screen reports and make decisions deciding whether neglect or abuse has occurred and how to respond. Since the Child Protective Services are usually unable to support families or children before child neglect or abuse is suspected or occurs, they are constrained to reacting after children come to the attention of the agencies. Due to such a limitation, it has caused the child welfare system to struggle with addressing the unprecedented challenges with the pandemic.
In addition to children facing abuse and neglect inside homes, over 430,000 foster care children are facing significant difficulties because of the pandemic. Some children have special health care needs or mental health care needs and have not been able to receive the medical care needed. Stability is one of the most important things that a foster care child needs to heal and thrive, and the pandemic has threatened the system’s ability to ensure placements for children, food security, access to support groups, access to technology, and support to children’s educational needs. Something needs to change.
This crisis has provided an opportunity for America to re-think and restructure child welfare at its core and come up with solutions to help these children in need. This pandemic may lead these agencies to address the risk-factors that lead the child abuse and neglect and address these issues before they are reported. The system must find new ways of adapting to social distancing restrictions, financial crisis families have endured, and how to reconcile child safety and protection with family support and preservation.