Thanks to the “new normal” of COVID-19, we are separated from people we love, many are facing economic insecurity, and our daily routines have been shattered. For most children, play dates are halted, playgrounds are roped up, and schools are closed. Parents who are still employed are juggling their full-time jobs with full-time child care. And within our homes, stress, anxiety, and constant contact have led to unfortunate increases in reports of domestic violence. Counterintuitively, however, many states have seen reductions in the number of calls to child welfare hotlines. This drop in reports might have unfortunate consequences. But there are reasons for optimism as well.
Undoubtedly, the reduction in calls is partly due to the fact that children are no longer in school. That means they are no longer in contact with “mandatory reporters” like teachers and social workers who are obligated by law to report suspected abuse or neglect. However, there was already rampant over-reporting of perceived neglect, particularly in communities of color, due to bias or in response to isolated serious cases in the media.
What many Americans don’t know about the child welfare system is that most children in foster care are not there due to physical abuse. Horror stories like those in the new docuseries The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez—where a young child dies after the state repeatedly fails to remove him from his abusive parents—are not representative. The vast majority of child welfare cases are instead due to “neglect.” But the definition of neglect varies by state and is usually vague. And many families are considered “neglectful” primarily because they are in poverty; common struggles like housing instability, lack of affordable child care, and food insecurity often trigger neglect findings. As a result, parents lose their children every day simply because they are poor. On top of that, because so many families struggle in these ways, the child welfare system is overburdened with frivolous neglect cases. Child protective workers have unmanageable caseloads. With too many families to keep track of, sometimes the children who actually do need protection—like Gabriel Fernandez—may fall through the cracks. In other words, our zeal to “protect” children actually subjects too many of them to the trauma of being removed from their homes, while putting others in mortal danger.
Although it is difficult to know exactly why abuse and neglect reporting is down, we can be certain that some number of legitimate abuse and neglect cases are going unreported in the pandemic. And, of course, genuine abuse cases should be reported when there is evidence. However, in addition to mandatory reporters, neighbors, relatives, friends, and ex-partners all regularly make calls to child welfare hotlines, sometimes based on valid concerns, but often based on judgments or assumptions about parenting and poverty. Even worse, other calls are vindictive.
Mandatory reporters may now have more limited access to children, but these parents are still at the mercy of many members of their community. And yet calls are down. Why? In this time of collective uncertainty, my hope is that these neighbors, relatives, and passersby are also thinking more carefully about reporting “neglect” by people who are struggling financially, because they might be struggling as well.
This pandemic is allowing the world to see what parents involved in the system and their advocates have known for decades: Things happen. Over 33 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March, and many have yet to receive a single dollar. With schools and day cares closed, for the first time many parents are feeling the effects of not having reliable child care. Poverty and economic uncertainty have become normalized. Further, this crisis is underscoring some of the structural failures that racial justice advocates have been trying to highlight for decades, because those failures are now affecting a greater segment of the population.
Additionally, the pandemic has heightened the harms of removing a child from her home, which typically includes instability and trauma. The risk of exposure to the virus and prolonged isolation from her family could make would-be reporters reconsider. Under normal circumstances, it’s incredibly difficult for parents to satisfy the conditions to win back their children from the state. This pandemic has made it impossible. When a child is in foster care, visitation between that child and her biological parent must usually occur in public. Shelter-in-place orders have closed the McDonald’s restaurants and libraries where families often had their weekly visits. Centers that supervised visitation may be unavailable, and in many cases visitation has been halted altogether. Without visits and the ability for states to monitor the relationship between parents and their children, reunification is unlikely if not impossible.
Finally, the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color mirrors the disparate impact of our child welfare systems—and all legal systems—on these same communities. These systems are not colorblind; they destroy people who were already vulnerable due to ingrained racial biases and poverty. The same parents who are most vulnerable to child welfare system involvement are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates because even during this time when we are all supposed to stay home, they are visible and overexposed. They tend to live in crowded places, work at the grocery stores and restaurants we all depend on, and take the public transportation that the privileged can avoid.
For many of us, for the first time, COVID-19 has separated us from the people we love, and it is difficult and painful. For others, financial concerns are all-consuming. So let’s use this surge of empathy to reflect on the damage that we’ve done to so many children, their parents, and their communities by separating them. Unnecessary family separation was a pandemic long before COVID-19. My hope is that the decline in child welfare reporting reveals a larger change afoot: that this common enemy has engendered heightened empathy for everyday family struggles. My greater hope is that this empathy will last even after we beat the virus.