Current Events

The hidden impact of COVID-19 on one of our most vulnerable populations

Elisabeth Balistreri

For Child Protective Services, implementing social distancing measures means much more than simply closing up shop or adopting new operational means balancing public health precautions with the even more immediate threats to health and well-being faced by the children they serve.

We’ve lived through plenty of disasters in recent history; hundreds of thousands of families have been displaced by natural disasters like hurricane Katrina and Sandy over the years, but the COVID-19 pandemic requires entirely new categories of emergency preparedness.

We haven’t had a national emergency in the last century in which people are being told to stay in the home, and the protocols in place to protect the most vulnerable among us--foster youth and children experiencing abuse or neglect--have never needed to be adapted to this type of emergency response. 

For Child Protective Services, implementing social distancing measures means much more than simply closing up shop or adopting new operational means balancing public health precautions with the even more immediate threats to health and well-being faced by the children they serve.

Balancing these needs effectively creates questions of national importance that cannot be left unanswered: what does this mean for social workers who hold lives in the balance every day when they go to work--as well as when they miss it? How will social workers--who interact with people at greater risk of contracting coronavirus on a daily basis--be asked to continue in their roles as protectors during this pandemic?

And perhaps the more important question: how does Michigan CPS plan to protect children in abusive homes as case managers get sick and social distancing measures interrupt existing protection systems?

The stay at home order that went into effect in Michigan is likely to impact child abuse reporting to CPS as mandated reporters won’t be coming into contact with children for weeks. We’re seeing hints of what could be happening here around the country; calls to report child abuse in Illinois dropped by almost half amid social distancing measures, and a hospital in Austin has already begun to see a dramatic increase in severe child abuse cases. 

Children in abusive homes are among those at greatest risk during the coronavirus pandemic. Yes, they are at greater risk for contracting and spreading coronavirus because of the conditions of life in poverty--underserved groups will always suffer most in a crisis like this. But this unprecedented breakdown of the systems in place to protect children in abusive homes will leave them to suffer in silence; no one is there to see their pain and do something about it. 

Domestic violence experts are beginning to shed light on the dark side of social distancing, as there is a strong possibility that the stress of this pandemic (felt in some homes more than others) could exacerbate domestic violence.

Low-income parents are finding themselves under immense pressure as they scramble to find affordable childcare for their children during school closings, undertake the fiscal burden of emergency preparation, and worry about whether changes in business operations may put them out of a job. According to a 2019 Federal Reserve report, 40% of Americans could not come up with $400 to cover an emergency. 

Previously non-violent homes will not suddenly become violent because of the stresses of coronavirus, but one of the foremost experts on domestic violence from John Hopkins School of Nursing, Jacquelyn Campbell, hypothesizes that any form of external pressure can exacerbate existing domestic violence…

...And school closings are putting children in more consistent reach of their abusers.

New York City child welfare programs are among those clamoring for direction in how to manage public health concerns for workers while continuing to prioritize the safety of the children they serve. They have written a letter to the mayor requesting “discretion to limit visits to and from residential foster homes and private homes where children’s safety may be a concern” and “Relief from licensing requirements and staff-to-child ratios that could be impossible to maintain if workers become sick.”

Here we are on the cusp of massive social upheaval, and these initial crisis management plans stop very short of offering solutions for the continued protection of children in abusive and neglectful homes.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this may be exactly the opportunity needed to find solutions for the child abuse crisis Michigan, and the rest of the country, has been battling for decades. We need the brightest minds in the country--engineers, software developers, and tech innovators--to work together to come up with radical new ways to protect our most vulnerable children in the face of immense barriers to care. The lives of far too many children hang in the balance.

In the meantime, existing services must step up to prevent children from falling through the cracks. House of Providence has been giving foster youth happy childhoods and bright futures since we opened our doors in 2012, helping children recover from trauma, feel the love of a family, and realize their full potential.

We have big plans to serve more children, but we depend on the generosity of people like you to address such expansive unmet needs. 

If you are fortunate enough to comfortably maintain your family’s safety and security during this crisis, consider donating to help those among us who can’t adapt to these changes so easily and may be at higher risk because of them. Helped people help people.

Until every child has a home…

Until every child has a home

We exist to instill hope in children who have only known the intense instability of foster care by emulating the unconditional love of a healthy family to them.

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