Foster care, adoption and child protective services have all been impacted by the current COVID crisis, changing the way departments operate and impacting the lives of both children and their families.
The Cleveland County Department of Social Services has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of reports of the abuse or neglect of a child, although those numbers don’t reflect a decrease in maltreatment.
Fewer CPS reports
Dr. Greg Grier, program administrator of child welfare and adult protective services for Cleveland County Department of Social Services, said since last year, there were 78 fewer reports of the potential neglect or abuse of a child.
In May of 2019, there were 151 reports made to child protective services. In May of 2020, that number dropped to 73.
Grier said although staff have continued to be on the front lines conducting visits, investigating reports and working with families during reunification efforts, the decrease can be attributed in part to schools shifting online in March and people isolating during the stay-at-home order.
Grier said the school system works closely with the department of social services and teachers, social workers and other school staff are a common source of those reports
"We have seen a decrease in reporting during this time but we have to be mindful that kids are at home now. Some of our biggest stakeholders who contact us when there's a concern have decreased," he said. "They see our kids on a daily basis and the kids tell them things, they notice things automatically."
That number represents a significant concern as potential issues go unnoticed.
"It helps us to keep a pulse on the community and what their needs are," Grier said.
He advised people to be aware of what’s going on in their communities and to call the office if they suspect a child might be in danger.
Grier said since the pandemic hit, not only are there fewer reports, but the ones they are receiving are complicated.
"The cases we have seen are much more complex, and the nature of those cases are much more serious," he said.
On the other side, adult protective services has seen an increase in reporting as the needs of the adult population grows. Grier said sometimes these needs involve issues with access to food or other necessities.
"Some of that population doesn't have family to reach out to and with the limitations placed on visiting people, they didn't have anyone to care for them," he said.
Grier said some counties experienced a significant impact in child permanency services because of limitations set on the courts, but Cleveland County was able to work with judges, court appointed attorneys and families while following social distancing guidelines to prevent a backlog of cases from piling up until the courts opened back up.
He said they utilized such things as teleconferences and virtual visits.
According to state guidelines, social workers must have three one-hour visits in the home each month prior to recommending reunification between children and parents.
Many families were able to keep up with those through virtual visits, and the ones who chose to do them in person went through a screening process and followed safety protocols.
"Extra effort had to be done and placed into doing it," Grier said. "We didn't want to have a backlog, and if possible we wanted to get kids back with their parents, that's the best place for them."
He said the state relaxed some standards and with adoption cases, visits were all able to be completed virtually.
Children in foster care were also able to do virtual visits, but face-to-face was an option if it was in the best interest of the child.
Increase in need
Sarah Vidrine, a health policy specialist with North Carolina Child, also emphasized the impact COVID has had on communities.
The nonprofit focuses on advocating for children, removing barriers and improving policies that affect children.
Vidrine said COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the whole child welfare system, and said that includes reports of maltreatment across the state.
Like Grier, she said children are spending more time at home and are not seeing doctors and teachers like they normally would. At the same time, there has been an increase in the factors that lead to maltreatment, including economic and emotional stress, lack of access to community resources and isolation.
"We know this may result in an increase in need," she said. "We have a system that's already fairly overburdened, and again, with that isolation and when those issues do come to light... we’ve missed an opportunity to get in early and do preventive work."
The issue is exacerbated by a shortage of foster families across the state.
"The impact of COVID has been pretty significant in putting roadblocks up to licensing and relicensing," she said.
Visits between children and their parents have also been disrupted although the recommendation by the state is to continue with in-person visits unless there is a health or safety risk or if it could cause a disruption in placement.
Some families have immunocompromised members or other health concerns making in person visits unsafe, but virtual visitations present their own barriers due to a lack of access to the internet or inadequate access.
"There are all sorts of logistical things that have to be addressed," Vidrine said.
Vidrine said foster families are also struggling with a lack of school and childcare, employment concerns and financial constraints and many of them did not qualify for the federal stimulus check.
She said the state did boost the per child foster parent rate and also gave a one-time bump in TANF benefits to kinship unlicensed caregivers in an attempt to address the gap.
"I think we want to make sure that whatever we do and however we approach this, that we do so with flexibility and solid guidance that helps kids stay in stable places, ideally with their family of origin," Vidrine said. "Where that's not possible, they experience as few foster family placements as possible."
She said energy needs to be focused on making sure families have the resources they need, such as access to food and housing as well as healthcare and mental health or substance abuse help.
"I think that's the bottom line. It benefits kids, families. It also benefits the foster care system," she said.
Virtual visits and telehealth
Peter Bagley, executive director of Children’s Homes of Cleveland County said the agency works with DSS, and they too are seeing the impact of COVID on the families they serve.
Children’s Homes offers several services, including court ordered supervised visits as part of the reunification plan for children who have been taken into custody; independent living for teens aging out of foster care; trauma therapy; adoptions services and two residential care homes.
Bagley said their agency’s adoption services have continued unabated, but other areas have felt the stain of the pandemic.
"We are seeing significant impacts by COVID. Access to family visits has been obstructed... we've been able to move those to virtual visits as much as possible, there are provisions for those to continue in person if families insist on it," he said. "By and large, at least during phase one of the governor’s order, all were being done remotely. Which is not in the best interest of the child in the big picture."
Right now, CHCC is doing a blend of virtual and in-person but with the recent spike in the number of cases, he said that could go back to being done all virtually.
He said the face-to-face visits require extra monitoring, distancing, sanitizing and face masks, but it is something they attempt to do so children can have contact with their families.
Bagley said most of the outpatient therapy has moved to telehealth.
"We are doing some face-to-face now but probably 80 to 90 percent of it is through telehealth," he said. "The challenge is people who live remotely and have poor internet connections."
The way the agency operates has also changed, and they have felt a financial impact.
"As a nonprofit we have seen our donor support drop off pretty significantly over the past four months," he said.
They have not been able to do the usual fundraising events and he expects donations to United Way will be down as unemployment rates remain high.
However, not all of the changes have been negative, and there have been some silver linings.
Bagely said he expects one of the good things to come out of the pandemic is a Medicaid expansion which will provide greater access to mental health services.
"COVID has had a significant impact on mental health and well being," he said. "We’re hiring new staff in August just to help with the need as people come out of sequestering from COVID. They're going to be seeking those kinds of services."
Bagley said other positives include increased collaboration and partnerships with other agencies and more efficient use of technology.
"Some of the lessons we’re learning will go with us post COVID," he said.