Caseworkers with Allegheny County’s office of Children, Youth and Families continue to visit families face to face and investigate child abuse claims. Though operations haven’t considerably changed, there are concerns about children who are now “invisible.”
“Children who might have been seen at doctor’s appointments, might be in school, might be out in the community, now under stay at home orders--we are really worried about the effect [this has] on the reports we are given,” said CYF Deputy Director Jacki Hoover.
Since the week of March 9, calls to the Allegheny County child welfare call center have decreased by 51 percent. All Pennsylvania schools closed the following week. Since then calls have decreased by 39 percent.
In March, Pennsylvania’s child-abuse hotline, ChildLine, received about half of the calls it had received in February.
A majority of calls come from mandated reporters like teachers and pediatricians. Now, most doctors are only seeing children for emergency care and many schools are struggling to move to an online learning platform where teachers can interact with students virtually.
Pittsburgh Public Schools plans to move to online learning April 16. But not all children have access to technology, creating barriers for teachers to check on students. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said the district is working on training teachers to identify signs of abuse in a different environment.
When the move to online learning does happen, Hoover said she hopes teachers are asking questions.
“Is there anything they need or any trouble with the family? Are there things you’re fearful of?” she said.
CYF caseworkers are finding ways to ask those questions, too. The office did receive a shipment of personal protective equipment for in-person visits, but like most essential employees, they need more. Caseworkers and families are asked to wear masks and diligently disinfect cars after a home visit.
Sometimes those in-person visits only happen once a week, so caseworkers are checking in with children throughout the week virtually.
“During this (virtual) visit we are asking the child to take the phone and walk us through the house. We’re asking them ‘can you get alone in a room? Can you tell us what’s going on?’” she said.
Dr. Rachel Berger, the chief of UPMC’s Child Advocacy Center, said she is extremely concerned there will be a spike in child abuse in areas with shelter in place orders.
“All of the protections that children have have pretty much been taken away,” she said.
Berger said the lack of mandated reporting coupled with an increase in financial stress and anxiety within families could have long-term implications for vulnerable children.
“I think now you’re just going to see the tip of the iceberg. People that can’t avoid coming to the ER will come. But all of the things that are more mild that don’t require treatment, we won’t see them until they get really bad,” she said.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and CYF plans to pivot its awareness campaign to focus on those who do see children outside of the home like grocery store workers, mail carriers and pharmacy workers. Hoover said the idea of “see something, say something,” is critical now.
“Right now I assume people are laying around more, maybe confined to a bedroom. Safe sleep is really essential for babies," Hoover said. "Babies should be in their own empty space without a bunch of blankets."
Berger said as the shelter in place order continues, everyone should feel like mandated reporters. She said it’s important that the city and county continue to make moves to decrease the stress for families and offer as many resources as possible.
Hoover said her next concern is preparing for the long-term impacts of COVID-19.
“I think we will have more people who are unemployed, more people without resources or housing," she said. "So what are the interventions we can start putting in place now to help people gain employment or help people identify areas where they can obtain resources."
Hoover recommended parents who feel overwhelmed and need emergency child care reach out to Jeremiah’s Place at 412-924-0726. The CYF call center can be reached at 412-473-2000 and PA ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.