SAN ANTONIO – A perfect storm — that’s what some child abuse prevention advocates are calling the coronavirus pandemic.
For a month now, children at risk of abuse and neglect have been locked in homes with parents ill-equipped to deal with the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of the virus. Some worry the longer this crisis continues, it will lead to another epidemic of child abuse and neglect cases.
Randy Burton is particularly worried about the impact the health crisis is having on kids who were already living in crisis. The Houston-based attorney, former Harris County prosecutor, and founder of the non-profit Justice For Children fears what’s happening behind closed doors.
“This is a bad situation. It’s open season on these children right now,” Burton said. “We would anticipate that there will be significant increases in (abuse) reports.”
But according to information provided by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), reports of abuse and neglect to a statewide hotline are actually down by about 20%.
“The implication is that maybe that child abuse is down, right? That’s preposterous. We know that in these kinds of very tense, anxious, anxiety-producing times that parents inappropriately will lash out at anyone around them, including children,” Burton said. “I would have expected the numbers to have dropped dramatically. And maybe it’s just because we’re still fairly early in the process, but I don’t think that tells us a darn thing. If they said (abuse reports) had dropped 50%, that might be something that I would expect but it has nothing to do with the incidents of child abuse, which we think likely went up.”
A DFPS spokeswoman, Mary Walker, said the agency is not anticipating a drastic increase in abuse due to the pandemic.
“There are no projections indicating an increase at this time and if that happens, Child Protective Investigations (CPI) will adjust and handle accordingly,” Walker said. “Very few staff are working in offices right now but CPI caseworkers are still responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect. We have the legal responsibility to investigate, so when we receive those reports, we have to act.”
Child abuse prevention advocate Carrie Wilcoxson said it makes sense that reports of child abuse have dropped. With schools and daycares closed, two of the top reporters of abuse, teachers and daycare workers are no longer seeing kids face-to-face on a daily basis.
While teachers and daycare workers can often spot early troubling signs of abuse in their students, they’re also some of the first people young victims of sexual abuse confide in.
“This is probably where our heroes, our teachers, are the most significant is sexual abuse. Children create these really wonderful bonds with these teachers and sexual abuse outcries are very, very difficult for young children to make. And they generally make it with individuals that they truly trust and that may be with a teacher. You can see those type of cases and calls come in from teachers,” Wilcoxson said. “Those are the ones that I worry about most because that bond can be priceless when it comes to victims of sexual abuse.”
While the number of abuse reports may be down, Wilcoxson has her eye on another statistic released last week by the San Antonio Police Department that showed domestic violence cases have increased by 21% over the same time period last year.
“More than likely, a lot of those homes are going to have children inside those homes and domestic violence is child abuse. Whether a child is observing it, emotionally traumatized by it, or is at serious risk of being harmed during a domestic dispute,” Wilcoxson said. “So that concerns me and that number is sort of, for me, maybe an indicator of what may be going on inside the homes around our children right now.”
She says that’s why, now more than ever, it is up to families, friends, and neighbors to keep a close eye on families that may be at risk for abuse and to report their suspicions to the proper authorities. It’s also the law.
“It is Texas law to report if you have a cause to believe that a child is being abused or neglected. It can be punishable up to a Class A misdemeanor if you fail to report,” Wilcoxson said. “I say to those individuals, if you have that kind of information, if you have that kind of concern, do not hesitate (to report). And bad on you, if you do (hesitate). Bad on you if you do.”
Both Wilcoxson and Randy Burton suggest those who do suspect abuse and neglect should first contact their local police or sheriff department.
“I always encourage individuals to report to law enforcement and CPS, but primarily law enforcement,” Wilcoxson said. “There’s a reason for that. CPS is legislatively tasked with responding but they have up to 72 hours to make a response on certain cases. They are not first responders. They are not equipped to be first responders. So best practice in terms of reporting is to law enforcement. They are set up for that. They can handle those type of responses, especially in those cases where somebody believes a child is at serious risk of harm or imminent danger. Those concerns and those reports need to be going to law enforcement.”
According to DFPS, CPI investigators are still conducting investigations face-to-face and in homes but they are also doing some casework virtually.
“When visiting a family’s home, CPI is asking screening questions to identify if a family has experienced the symptoms of COVID-19 or been exposed to the virus through contact, travel, or visit to a health care facility,” Walker said in an e-mail. “Before the conclusion of each visit, caseworkers will discuss the viability of virtual options for future contacts during the health crisis. Virtual contacts must be approved by the supervisor and consider the specific safety and risk factors in the family.”
Randy Burton has concerns about what might be missed by doing those follow-up visits remotely.
“You don’t know what kind of pressure (children) are under. If you’re trying to have a private conversation with a child, that’s virtually impossible. You don’t know what the condition of the house is. Maybe you can clean a few things, but you certainly can’t look for bruises or other sorts of things that might indicate that the child is unsafe in whatever placement was made,” Burton said. “It’s a pitiful situation. Our system is already broken and we are investigating something so serious as child abuse or neglect, it’s almost impossible.”
Burton also has some serious concerns about the potential log jam of cases that could hit courthouses across the state when everything is finally re-opened. He fears it could lead to many kids falling through the cracks.
“It’s really going to send a shockwave through the system. I don’t know it, but I would predict that they’re going to be more selective. They may actually only handle the most horrible of cases,” Burton said. “We don’t have enough police and CPS caseworkers to do this kind of work. And so, when you open things back up, whenever that happens, you’re going to have the new stuff, plus that huge backlog. I can’t imagine what a mess it’s going to be. That means if cases are not properly investigated or if they cut corners to try to get caught up on things, more children are going to be left at risk. It’s an inescapable fact that this is going to leave more children in harm’s way.”
Resources provided by DFPS:
- A list of all of DFPS’s prevention programs can be found here.
- Parents can search for a provider in their community through this search as well as other resources that may help here.
- Right now, these organizations are moving to virtual home-visits, counseling sessions, and parenting supports to continue meeting families’ needs. They are also organizing the delivery of basic needs to families such as diapers, formula, grocery gift cards and toys to occupy children in order to help immediately. Some are providing information to parents at meal pick-up lines. They are working hard to quickly re-deploy to meet families’ needs at this time and likely need support at the community level. We anticipate families stress to be increasing and the need to provide supports to steadily increase.
- In addition, we are posting helpful COVID-19 tips for parents at www.HelpandHope.org and working to continuously update the page with resources that can provide reassurance, tips and additional support in parenting during these unprecedented times.
- Carrie Wilcoxson also conducted a Facebook Live video chat with local agencies to discuss resources available to families. You can watch it here.