The coronavirus pandemic increases stress and isolation, leaving vulnerable families and children at risk

Tribune Content Agency

HARTFORD, Conn. — As the coronavirus pandemic slams people with anxieties and forces them into social isolation with little outside observation, it also puts children at increased risk of abuse and neglect, according to Connecticut state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan.

“It’s a crisis for everybody but it is in particular a crisis for vulnerable families and kids,” Eagan said.

The persistent health concerns, financial stressors and extended isolation create “probably the greatest challenge you can make … to communities and agencies serving vulnerable people,” Eagan said.

And to some extent, the agencies trying to mitigate those dangers are crafting the playbook as they go.

For the state Department of Children and Families, that new playbook means check-in visits to families with open case files are now done online. Staff members are sent out to homes on a case-by-case. Meanwhile, with schools out, DCF is also getting fewer reports of neglect.

That makes it difficult — and dangerous — for foster care workers and social workers to do their jobs. But their jobs are still necessary, said DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes.

“When something like this changes the way society interacts with each other, it doesn’t change the needs … that some of our families experience,” she said.

Eagan says that child welfare organizations have no pre-existing plan they can turn to during this pandemic. She pointed to a disaster preparedness guide from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that urges child welfare organizations to prepare for all types of unexpected challenges — but the guide doesn’t include pandemic influenza.

“There’s literally no blueprint,” Eagan said. “Where (people have) made disaster preparedness plans for child welfare, it has not included this disaster.”


It’s not just that the pandemic adds stress to people’s lives. With schools closed, families stuck in their houses and child welfare workers avoiding in-person contact, there are also fewer opportunities for people to spot problems.

DCF relies largely on mandated reporters to call in suspicions of child abuse or neglect. DCF Bureau Chief of External Affairs Ken Mysogland said that, under normal circumstances, about 35% of all reports come from school staff.

But now, with schools closed, school staff are making only 5% of all reports, Mysogland said.

And overall, from mandated reporters and the general public combined, new reports plummeted to less than a third the normal amount in the first week of schools closed — from 126 per day to 39 per day.

“With a semi-shutdown of our society, kids are less visible to the institutions that we have really relied on for raising a red flag when there’s a concern,” Eagan said.

Mysogland said the numbers jumped back up again in the second week after schools closed — to a total of 90 new reports on Wednesday — but the rebound is only a partial one.

“This is good in that the reports are coming back to normal levels because it does appear that individuals are having contact from children and families,” Mysogland said.

In addition to calls from the outside, under normal circumstances DCF also deploys some of its 3,200 staff members to conduct in-person visits to families that are in need or under investigation. But in-person visits now pose risks of viral spread to everyone involved.

‘We’re still in business’

Typically, DCF case workers make standard visits to families with open case files — Dorantes said some are scheduled for one visit a month, many for two a month and a few for “much more frequent” visits.

Dorantes said moving to remote work and virtual check-ins takes a significant amount of prep work.

In a non-pandemic effort over the past year, DCF has sent out 1,845 tablets to its employees to equip them to work on-the-go. But preparing for intermittent or occasional remote work has helped the department phase more smoothly into a long-term remote plan.

And in the weeks before coronavirus shut down the state, as the threats of COVID-19 began to take shape, DCF employees combed through all of the department’s open cases and foster care cases, Dorantes said. They updated filed to create an up-to-date accounting of all of the children under DCF watch, and also established a “baseline” so that they could later pick out escalating risk factors during virtual check-ins.

If a virtual check-in does trigger alarm bells — or if a family doesn’t pick up the call — Dorantes said her department is prepared to make in-person or home visits as well. Sending a staff member into the field is a case-by-case decision right now, Dorantes said, but child safety is still the department’s priority.

“We’re still in business,” Dorantes said. “We’re ready to still meet the needs of our communities.”

‘The tipping point’

Both Dorantes and Mysogland said they’re not just focused on responding to children in danger — they’re also working to provide families with resources to prevent neglect or abuse in the first place.

They urged people to call DCF if they’re concerned about a child in their neighborhood or at their school. But they also asked people to try to take care of each other, to help their friends and family members avoid abuse or neglect before it happens.

“We can prevent the tipping point, hopefully, if we all collaborate together,” Mysogland said.

About 9 out of every 10 allegations DCF receives are about child neglect, not abuse, DCF said. So the department is working to compile what Dorantes called a “repository of resources” so that families have everything they need to take care of their children, even when their usual resources are closed or difficult to access.

Eagan said the child advocate’s office, along with DCF and several other agencies, is working to make an even more comprehensive guide so that people can find local and statewide resources — such as a running tally of open food banks and online mental health care — in one place.

“This could go on for a while,” Eagan said. “We need a blueprint for meeting people’s emotional, mental health and other types of support needs.”


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