I write in response to your recent article, “Experts Worry that Pandemic Isolation Might Lead to Unreported Instances of Child Abuse.” There has been a lot of public discussion recently focused on the drop in child abuse and neglect reports to the Mass. Department of Children and Families since the COVID-19-driven stay-at-home order and closure of schools. Yet the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of the children, youth and families already in DCF’s caseload is largely missing in this coverage.
As an advocate member of a Child Welfare Coalition formed in response to COVID-19, we are deeply concerned about the impact of the crisis on the greater than 10,000 children and young adults already in the care or custody of DCF and over 37,000 additional children and young adults involved with DCF and the child welfare system (more than 250 and 860, respectively, on Cape and islands). Critical pieces of that system were not working well for them before the pandemic. Now, these children and their families require our urgent attention.
Among those DCF-involved youths that are particularly vulnerable during this time are youths ages 18 to 22 in foster care settings. Massachusetts has the third-highest rate in the country of young people who leave foster care without ever having been placed in a permanent family. These youths are at serious risk of homelessness and other negative outcomes.
The health and well-being of children in foster care must be a top concern during the pandemic. Children living in various residential group settings and moving from placement to placement run increased risks of exposure to COVID-19, increasing the exposure risk of DCF workers, parents, foster parents and caretakers, as well. Massachusetts has many children in group care, and some of the highest rates in the nation on foster care placement instability according to federal child welfare data.
Meaningful visits between children in foster care and their parents and siblings are essential to minimize the trauma these children have already endured due to separation from their families. We are troubled by member reports that children’s access to their parents—even through virtual contact—is limited and dependent on which DCF area office and which social worker oversees their case.
It is imperative during this emergency that DCF keep policy makers, advocates and the public informed through crisis reporting data and with up-to-date information. This reporting must tell us about the impact of the crisis on those already involved with DCF and what DCF’s response is to the needs of those children, youth and families.
This is an unprecedented crisis, and everyone, from parents to children to advocates and DCF officials themselves, is stressed, stretched and having to adapt quickly. The Child Welfare COVID-19 Coalition has been working on these issues since early April and has communicated concerns and recommendations to DCF, the Office of the Child Advocate and members of the Legislature. We have yet to see crisis reporting from DCF and will continue to bring these issues to the attention of those in the state responsible to oversee child welfare.
June D. Ameen