In the past seven months, more than 7,000 people in the Washington region have died of the coronavirus. We'll hear from the friends and families of those lost about how they've coped in a time when the most basic grieving rituals are disrupted.
Since the start of the pandemic, the number of calls placed to local child protective service hotlines have dropped significantly. Without the watchful eyes of educators and coaches, many are concerned for the safety of children facing abuse and neglect.
Meanwhile, social distancing measures and virtual court proceedings have created a new normal for both children in the foster care system and social workers alike.
What can be done to protect children from potential abuse and neglect? How is the foster care system adapting during the public health emergency?
Produced by Kayla Hewitt
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, where I'm broadcasting from home, so welcome. Later in the broadcast author Lauren Francis-Sharma on her new epic novel stretching from Trinidad in the Caribbean to the American west in the 1800 and 1900 centuries.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first the coronavirus pandemic has adversely affected or impacted the most vulnerable among us including children in the foster care system. So how are the region's child welfare services being impacted by the pandemic? And how are these services adjusting to the new normal? Joining me now is Brenda Donald the Director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Brenda Donald, thank you for joining us.
BRENDA DONALDThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIHow many children are currently entering the foster care system in D.C. and how many were entering the system before the pandemic began?
DONALDWe currently have about 720 children in the foster care system and roughly 25 or 30 children would enter each month. During the pandemic those numbers have declined, and we have more children who are still at home with their families.
NNAMDIWhat's causing the reduction in the number of children entering the system?
DONALDWell, part of that has been intentional. Over the years we really have focused on frontend prevention and stabilizing families and providing community based services and supports to families so that they can safely take care of children in their own home. And I know we've had many chats over the years. But, you know, we used to have over 3,000 children in foster care even when the city was a lot smaller in population, and so we've reduced that number again intentionally by providing more supports to families at home.
DONALDBut what has happened during this pandemic is that we're getting fewer calls into our hotline. And it's primarily because 60 to 75 percent of our typical hotline calls are from schools, because schools, teachers, school personnel are the ones who see children and are certainly trained and attuned to children's needs and looking for signs of abuse and neglect.
DONALDSo our big concern now is really not so much our children, who are in foster care because they are well cared for. They're in foster homes. Our foster parents have really stepped up and they're hanging in there with these children and keeping them stable and safe. But it's the children we don't see who may be suffering that we are concerned about.
NNAMDIWhat should people do if they suspect neglect or abuse is happening in a home?
DONALDWell, we want them to call. First of all they certainly will call our hotline which is 202-671-SAFE S-A-F-E. So that our experts are, our hotline call takers and our child protective services workers can ask questions and ascertain whether or not what someone suspects is abuse or neglect. Again, normally that's going to come from schools. We certainly hear from law enforcement, from hospitals.
DONALDBut now what we've asked our community partners to do who are out about in the community. They're providing meals to families. They're connecting with families in other ways to really step up and be more vigilant. If they see that, you know, perhaps they haven't seen a child when they've delivered meals to the family or they may observe some other signs were they note that something is not quite right. And so it's really really important that our children are seen now and that we reach out to help families, because everyone is stressed during this time.
NNAMDIAgain that D.C. number for local and abuse hotline is 202-671-SAFE or 202-671-7233. In Virginia, it's 800-552-7096. That's 800-552-7096. Maryland Child Abuse and Neglect hotline numbers are different for each county. But you can find them on the Maryland Department of Human Services website. Joining us also is Allison Gilbreath a Policy Analyst at Voices for Virginia's Children. Allison Gilbreath, thank you for joining us.
ALLISON GILBREATHHappy to be here.
NNAMDIHas it become more difficult to place children into foster homes in Virginia since the pandemic began?
GILBREATHWell, Virginia has been facing challenges in the foster care system for a really long time. Actually the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission took a look in depth at foster care in 2018 and it really just showed gaping holes in the foster care system. Some of them were around the struggle to retain the workforce. And I think that challenge has persisted throughout this pandemic. So as far as placing children about 180 children have entered foster care since the pandemic began in mid-March. We have been pretty good about getting the children placed into homes. Some of them have had to go into congregate care settings. But the challenge has been finding foster families who are willing to self-quarantine with the child for two weeks.
NNAMDII can understand that. Also joining us is Sharra Greer, the Policy Director at the D.C. Children's Law Center. Sharra Greer, thank you for joining us.
SHARRA GREERAnd thank you for having me.
NNAMDIHow are children in the foster care system now communicating with their biological families?
GREERAt this point it is almost exclusively virtual. So either by, you know, FaceTime or video chat or by phone, which has certainly been very difficult for children, who are used to being able to visit in person with their families and their parents and siblings. It has been very stressful.
NNAMDII can imagine. Are virtual visits effective means of communication for all children in the system?
GREERAs you might imagine it can be a challenge. I mean, children are in foster care from birth to 20. And certainly for teenagers it's much easier. For a toddler to have effective communication on the phone is almost impossible. So it is a real challenge especially for our younger clients to maintain that connection.
NNAMDII guess a two year old doesn't get a great deal out of a Zoom call.
GREERNo unfortunately not.
NNAMDII can understand that. Again the number to call here is 800-433-8850. Allison Gilbreath are there any advantages to virtual visits for children in the foster care system?
GILBREATHWe have been hearing from young people in Virginia's foster care system that sometimes they're able to breakdown some walls when they're talking to their biological family over Zoom. The other advantage that some of the youth are talking about maybe right now they're only getting one hour a week face to face with their family. But now the foster family and the biological family are doing three Zoom meetings. One of the barriers it takes away is that transportation. Virginia is very rural. I know that sometimes it feels like we're in this bubble where everything is really close. But if you look at Wise or Martinsville that might be an hour visit back and forth or sometimes an hour to get there and an hour to get back.
GILBREATHAnd so if we're able -- my hope is that when this is over we can take a step back and say, okay, some of the provisions that we put into place, because of COVID really need to continue. We should really be able to do in person visits for children and virtual visits so that children can have more conversations with their biological siblings, their aunts, their uncles, their grandparents to help them stay connected to their family of origin and their culture in many cases.
NNAMDIIt certainly seems to make sense. Here is Richard in Alexandria, Virginia. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDThanks very much for taking my call. I think we need to take a deep breath and think about the racial and class bias that is underlying some of this messaging on report anything and everything. What we're really saying when we claim that as soon as the eyes of often white almost always middle class professionals are reverted from children, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately non-white we're saying, what, their parents will unleash savagery upon them. What does that say about how we really think of poor families?
NNAMDIAre you suggesting, Richard, that the majority of teachers that we're talking about, the majority of social workers that we're talking about, the majority of all of the healthcare professionals, who take interest in children are doing it with a built in bias?
RICHARDWe all have built in biases.
NNAMDISo you're saying you'd rather have the situation continue to be the way it is?
NNAMDIThan be able to have teachers be able to report what they suspect is child abuse?
RICHARDThey absolutely should be able to, but when we encourage anyone and everyone to report their slightest suspicion what you wind up with is a grossly overloaded system that traumatizes innocent families and children. And the system has been so overloaded they don't have time to find those few children in real danger.
NNAMDIRichard, allow me to have Director Donald explain. That is precisely the opposite of what is actually happening. Brenda Donald.
DONALDYes. Thank you. Thanks for letting me get in. I'm here just jumping to get in. So I understand Richard's point. We're not as -- certainly when someone calls our hotline we have experts, who are trained to ask certain questions to really understand if someone is making a report that really doesn't go to true abuse or neglect. We're not going to respond to a frivolous call. But yet and still we don't want people to hold back and second guess and be reluctant if they think something is wrong. These children, now, when they're not in school are not being seen and everyone has a responsibility if they think that something is going on to raise their hand. And raise their hand in this case is to call our hotline. Most often, 90 percent of the time our response is going to be to support the family.
DONALDThat's we have so few kids who are in foster care now and several thousand kids that we are supporting in home with their families, but that doesn't mean they don't need help. They may not need to come into the foster care system. But families may be overwhelmed with stress, mental health issues, sometimes substance abuse issues that they're not able to get addressed particularly during this time. So now is the time for all of us to wrap our arms around families to support them and certainly to say something so that the experts can determine whether or not a child is at risk of being abused or neglected.
NNAMDIRichard, we only have about 30 seconds left before our break. Richard, but you get the last word.
RICHARDLast year Channel 9 reported that if you're simply a few minutes late to pick up your child from a D.C. public school those school teachers who are ever on the alert will call CFSA. CFSA case workers would be there and haul them off to Brenda Donald's office, a terribly traumatic experience for a child.
DONALDClearly bad information that was false that was corrected. Someone -- we don't know where that came from, but that absolutely does not happen and is not encouraged.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. If you'd like to get in on it give us a call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing what coronavirus means for local child welfare services with Brenda Donald, Director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Sharra Greer is the Policy Director at the DC Children's Law Center. And Allison Gilbreath is a Policy Analyst at Voices for Virginia's Children. Allison Gilbreath, what challenges are social workers in Virginia facing during this pandemic?
GILBREATHThat is an excellent question. I have to start by saying the starting salary for child welfare workers in Virginia is $30,828. So imagine you can be in your community and work at Target and get hazard pay in Virginia and make more than you do as a child welfare worker in Virginia. So some of the challenges that they are facing is we don't have a great evidence based services to refer children to help prevent entry into foster care. During the Virginia General Assembly session the lawmakers exerted $92 million into Virginia's foster care system, the most investment in over decades.
GILBREATHThe problem is that with COVID-19 the governor has put all new spending on hold. So they all of the same challenges, but they have less resources to do it. And they're even in their local counties and government, they're also facing budget cuts now too.
NNAMDISo what support do they need? What support is needed for social workers through this public health crisis?
GILBREATHWhat we need is when the General Assembly comes back into session for a special session we need for lawmakers to designate child welfare workers as emergency responders. The reasons why we need to do this is because it opens the door to so many supports. Some of them are hazard pay, family leave, but it also will help us to prioritize them when we're looking at unfreezing dollars in the governor's budget. I would like to see the $30 million that was going to be put to help create those evidence based services put back into the Virginia budget, because families are going to have challenges that go on far beyond this virus.
NNAMDISharra Greer, how are social workers communicating with children in D.C.? Are there times when a social worker has to enter a home?
GREERYes, there are. And actually Director Donald may have a little bit more information than I do on this one. But, I mean, certainly there are some circumstances when social workers are going to have to actually see a child or when there is a removal of a child. And I know that Child and Family Services Agency has worked very hard to try and, you know, minimize the risk to their workers, which is one of the reasons why I know they've moved almost everything to be virtual to try and keep their workers safe. I mean, also keep families safe, because it's important, you know, to not be having people come into homes for their own safety.
NNAMDIBrenda Donald, can you add to that.
DONALDYes. That certainly has been a big challenge. And, of course, one of, you know, our responsibilities is to make sure that our workers are safe and also recognize that they're going through stressful times with their own families. And with children being out of school and many of our social workers have their own children. So there's a lot that is compounded on top of an already difficult job. But we have reduced the occasions when our workers need to go face to face with children. And we talked earlier about the more virtual visits.
DONALDBut for a child protective services investigation they must have eyes on a child and have to go into an environment that is an unknown environment. And again that could be risky on, you know, under any circumstances. So we've taken a number of precautions. Our social workers are considered first responders. And they do get certain -- we follow certain protocols as far as exposure or suspected exposure to families that may have the COVID-19 virus, but it's, you know, it's not perfect. And we've all had to make adjustments and we're all learning as we go along.
NNAMDIHere's Valerie in Richmond, Virginia. Valerie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VALERIEHi. Thank you. Yeah, so I'm really interested in changes in practice during COVID. You know, I'm glad that we're doing, you know, that kids are getting good visitation with their parents even if they live faraway, because we can use of technology. But I'm also wondering about the fact that a lot of kids in foster care are going to be really really worried about family members during this time, especially if they have elderly grandparents at home who they know are vulnerable. And how stressed out these kids must be being apart from their families during this time.
VALERIEAnd I'm wondering what the departments are doing to look at things like if a family is close to having met their service plan requirements to reunify with their children. What they're doing to expedite that to say, okay, let's finish the service plan requirements after your child is home, so that the children can be home with their families and not be so traumatized at the separation.
GILBREATHGreat to hear from you, Valerie. And great question. You know, we are hearing from a lot of families in Virginia that depending on what locality they live in depends on if their cases in juvenile court are being continued. And we don't want for children who their families have checked all of the boxes and really the last thing left to do is reunification for that to be delayed. I've been telling people, you know, if you're feeling anxious or uncomfortable right now you are experiencing what children and their families in foster care feel every single day. They don't know when they're are going to be able to go home again. They don't know when they're going to see their siblings again, and so we have to ensure that we're doing everything possible to expedite reunification when it is safe.
NNAMDIDirector Donald, and the District children are usually aged out of the system at the age of 21. Have any protections been established for young adults due to leave the system during this pandemic?
DONALDYes. We have. And in partnership with the Children's Law Center, in fact, we went to the City Council and got legislation as part of the COVID emergency legislation to allow our young people to stay in the foster care system if they chose to do so. So that we can continue to provide, you know, placement, housing supports and continue if they're still in school and all of the resources that we would normally provide so that they wouldn't age out and be stressed particularly in this environment where it's so hard to get a job, and you're competing with others and so many work places are closed. So we were really concerned about that.
DONALDSo we have young people who we are going to continue to support at least throughout this pandemic. And I wanted to share some really good information to when the caller before was talking about, you know, kids being stressed and being away from their families. In just six weeks during the pandemic, we have finalized 22 reunifications -- that's where children are able to go back home -- ten guardianships and eight adoptions. So that's really good news. So that's 40 kids who are no longer in foster care and over a six week period. So we did expedite closing some cases with our court partners who made sure that that happened.
NNAMDIHere's Salone in Richmond, Virginia. Salone, your turn.
SALONEHi. How are you doing? Thank you for having me on the show. So I've been tuning in and I just wanted to briefly comment on the issue that came up earlier regarding implicit bias and the presumption that there is more abuse and neglect during the COVID crisis. And I think, you know, perhaps what is sort of misconstrued here is that it's not the thought that mandated reporters such as, you know, nurses, school staff those type of people shouldn't make reports. It's that the reality is that the number of cases of neglect in the country -- I mean, I think everyone on the phone would agree to this is that those cases are positioned in the communities of color and in low income communities disproportionately.
SALONEAnd that the large majority of those cases tend to be cases regarding neglect not necessarily abuse. So what we're talking about is lack of food, clothing, adequate housing.
NNAMDIOkay. Only have about a minute left. So please conclude your statement.
SALONEYeah. And so what I want to focus on was sort of like how do we ensure that those families get the resources they need to prevent further issues of safety or neglect or, you know, inadequate guardianship as opposed to just sort of like policing those communities.
NNAMDISharra Greer, can to respond to that?
GREERI do. And I wanted to say I think one of the most important things in all of this is the acknowledgement of how much stress has been put on families.
NNAMDIYou only have about 40 seconds left.
GREERI'll go really fast. So we really need to be doing what we can to support those families, which means dealing with issues of job loss and food security and all of the things that are compounding the stress on families, which increases the likelihood that families are going to get into situations where there's so much stress that you're increasing the likelihood of abuse and neglect. I think it's also really important that we make sure that people are accessing mental health services and supports. And those are available, because this is a really important time where both children and parents are incredibly stressed and need supports in ways to be able to work through a lot of the very scary and difficult things that are happening in the world around them.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Sharra Greer, Brenda Donald, Allison Gilbreath, thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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