The number of suspected child abuse and neglect calls that the Charles County Department of Social Services receives has dropped significantly since the implementation of “stay at home” orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the severity of abuse cases has increased, officials with the department said.
“What we’re seeing is that our calls have gone down, because many of our calls came in from the school system, and with schools being closed, that has impacted the number of reports that we’ve received,” said Wanda Collins, program administrator, who oversees the child protective services unit.
Tanisha Sanders, assistant director of child and family services, estimated that teachers and other school officials, who are mandated reporters under state law, make up a majority of the calls received under normal circumstances. Other calls, from neighbors and other family members, have dropped off as well.
Nationally, educators accounted for 21% of the 4.3 million referrals made in 2018, according to the 2018 Child Mistreatment Report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The other trend that we’re seeing is that when we do get calls, the calls are more severe,” Collins said.
Collins said that the cases that are being reported tend to be coming from medical professionals, who are seeing an increase in the degree of severity of abuse. “We’ve always received calls from the hospitals, but in the calls we’re getting now, the children have a higher level of injury, so that’s the other impact we’re seeing with COVID-19,” Collins said.
“The first few cases we received were very serious cases … because the children’s injuries were so severe the abusers had to seek medical attention,” added Kelly Beswick, CPS supervisor. “We’re also seeing more children with mental health issues that are ending up at the hospital, and when they get to the hospital, they’re reporting abuse at home.”
Therese Wolf, director of the Charles County Department of Social Services, expressed concern that abuse and neglect of children and vulnerable adults may be occurring but is not being reported. Wolf urged individuals to make a report, even anonymously, if they are aware of anything that might be a concern.
“We’re saying it’s always better to report than to not,” Wolf said. “When I hear Wanda [Collins] and Kelly [Beswick] saying the cases they’re getting are more severe, I have to wonder if some people don’t report because they’re not absolutely sure that a child was abused, or sometimes people are afraid their identity will be shared with the people involved. We have to get the word out to the larger community about the importance of everybody’s eyes, the community’s eyes, being out there to protect the safety of children and families.”
Sanders said the way in which DSS operates has been forced to change due to the pandemic, with many — but not all — visits done online. “We’ve been allowed to do video conferencing, but our workers still have to lay eyes on the children, and that goes for children that are in care as well as those families that are receiving preservation services through our in-home family preservation group. So we still have to be able to lay eyes on those children,” Sanders said.
Sanders said technology has allowed them to connect with families on a more regular basis.
“Even though we are working from home, we are working a lot harder; those that are going out [to do in-person home visits] are doing a lot more detailed assessments of the families because of the amount of time we have to spend with them and to make sure that time is well-taken advantage of,” Sanders said.
Collins said there are a lot of misconceptions about DSS and the process of reporting suspected child abuse and neglect.
“I think that the fear that people have about making a report, and that children have in telling their stories, is that they’re going to be removed from their family, but in Charles County, we do very few removals. We look for community support, we look for extended family members who may be able to step in and assist, friends, so that when we can keep children safe within their homes, that is our first mandate to try to keep these families together, to provide education and counseling and services, so that the child can actually stay in the home,” Collins said.
Wolf said that there are currently 55 children in foster care in Charles County, down from approximately 100 two to three years ago. “We cut that number almost in half. It doesn’t mean that there’s less need,” Wolf said. “Across the country, the way child welfare operates has changed. There are often problems in the family that involve children, and may involve abuse and neglect, but oftentimes we’re able to work with families and keep a child safely at home; removing children is not our first course of action at all.”
Sanders said there are a variety of resources that are available to families, who may be undergoing additional stresses during the pandemic.
“If parents, individuals, anyone caring for children and adults, if they need some help, we are a resource to provide those services or connect them with services. It’s not only about removing children; we want to do everything we can to preserve the family unit, whether it’s in a vulnerable adult’s life or in a child’s life,” Sanders said.
Sanders said many counseling and supporting services are still available; many have moved to videoconferencing, she said.
Beswick said she wanted the community to know that child protective services is still operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are still open for business. We are still assessing children for safety. The investigators for adult protective services and child protective services are still responding to calls. Sometimes neighbors may see things, or they notice a child acting strangely, they should give us a call, let us come out and check on things. We are still responding and going to people’s homes. Our staff is coming with their protective equipment on and checking on kids,” Beswick said.