Child abuse concerns rise as school closures mean fewer eyes on kids
By Stacey Shepard
March 30, 2020
In the midst of a virus pandemic that has shuttered schools and workplaces and is creating financial and job-related stress for families, some social workers have another concern on their mind: child abuse and neglect.
An average of 41 Kern County kids a day were referred to Child Protective Services in 2018, and most of those referrals come from teachers, doctors and counselors, mandated reporters and people whose jobs involve interacting with children on a daily basis, according to Tom Corson, the director of Kern County Network for Children. On average, eight of the calls were substantiated neglect, he said.
"My fear right now is nobody has eyes on these kids," Corson said.
Corson's organization decided right away that while their office buildings would be closed, case managers would continue to make contact with kids in their program. The network is charged with child abuse prevention, including providing funds and oversight of social workers throughout the county who check on children in situations that don't rise to the level of being tracked by Child Protective Services. The idea is to provide intervention services for the family before things get worse.
One of the main concerns for Corson is children being left unattended or not having basic needs met. Corson said schools continuing to provide food for children is helpful. But in a county where a third of children already live in poverty, Corson suspects many parents will likely go to work during this time and leave children unattended.
Amy Travis, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Kern County, said she is also focused on continuing contact between CASA advocates and the children they work with.
CASA provides abused and neglected children with a highly-trained advocate to speak on their behalf throughout court proceedings. The advocate is expected to build a relationship with the child and check in on the child weekly. In some cases that may happen by phone or video call, right now, Travis said. But if need be, advocates will still visit a child's home wearing protective gear and taking proper precautions.
"When families are contained and forced to stay inside all day, there’s new triggers. It is a stressor," Travis said.
Travis pointed to data from Cook Children's Hospital, a pediatric facility in Texas, that showed during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, the main cause of trauma among children at the hospital changed from motor vehicle accidents to abusive head injuries. The hospital posted a news story on its website March 20 saying that it treated seven cases of severe child abuse in the prior week, a number typically seen in a month. The story said COVID-19 and its associated stress on families was likely the cause.
Travis urged the public to use the local child abuse hotline if child abuse or neglect is suspected. She also said CASA is seeking new volunteers to help with its caseload and an anticipated increase in cases the could arise in the coming weeks.
Child Protective Services workers with the Kern County Department of Human Services will continue to respond to reports of abuse during the pandemic, a spokesperson said, including responding in person when warranted.