As COVID-19 prompts many homes, businesses and institutions to close their doors, social agencies are worried a quiet crisis is forming for at-risk children who depend on community support for food, shelter and safety.
Local agencies are working proactively to provide resources, information, counseling and supplies to families who may need them. But with social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic poised to stretch on for weeks, officials are concerned they may see more kids at risk for abuse and neglect, and more kids without loving homes to call their own.
“We know that 75% of the children that are in the foster care system today are there because of neglect, and we feel like a lot of that neglect is a product of fixable family issues: things like untreated mental health challenges, lack of parental support or role models, lack of access to medical care, affordable groceries, childcare, whatever the issues may be,” said Lindsey Cannon, Children’s Home Society’s executive director for the Pensacola region. “We know right now that families are struggling to meet basic needs, and we know, going forward, they’re going to need support more than ever, especially in the crisis that we’re in.”
Children’s Home Society is a nonprofit organization focused on child welfare. It provides an array of services that include early childhood programs, counseling, community partnership schools and foster care and adoption services.
“For Children’s Home Society, one of the things that we’re looking at in the coming weeks is we expect cases of child abuse and neglect to go up, as COVID-19 forces people to stay off work, resulting in isolation, stress, economic hardship and inadequate child supervision for families that have to leave to maintain a job,” Cannon said.
Stacey Kostevicki, executive director of the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, echoed the concerns that the potential for abuse and neglect could increase. She added the risk is exacerbated because physical isolation practices that prevent the spread of COVID-19 also keep kids out of schools, sports and other public places where outside eyes can check on them.
“We do expect that (COVID-19) is going to increase child abuse reports in the long run, but what we’re seeing right now is actually less reporting, because the kids aren’t visible,” Kostevicki said. “I think in addition to physical abuse going up, we’re going to get increasing sexual abuse, even just among other kids, because the biggest predictor of sexual abuse is access.”
That access could come from boyfriends, relatives or others being at alone at home with children all day, or from working parents desperately turning to friends and acquaintances for emergency day care while school is out.
Kostevicki said the Gulf Coast Kid’s House — a one-stop shop that facilitates investigations, counseling and other services related to abuse and neglect — is using the current down time to develop protocols for how to process these victims when they come in while also minimizing staff and families’ risk of COVID-19 exposure. Staff is already doing a lot more work by phone, asking screening questions about symptoms and travel, limiting people’s access to their facilities and encouraging field teams to do field teams interviews virtually or outside of homes.
Cannon said Children’s Home Society is also adapting its policies and practices, but that they were also increasing public outreach to stay in touch with families who may not have internet access.
On Thursday morning, a team of volunteers in gloves and face masks walked neighborhoods handing out packets of information on food distribution sites and other community resources.
Bobbi Grimsley, a recent Pensacola transplant who was laid off her retail job because of COVID-19, said her stepson was supposed to spend the summer with her and her husband. They were forced to send him home because they weren’t sure they could support him. CHS staff referred her to 211 for a list of organizations that may be able to help, and spoke with her about other families in the neighborhood with children that CHS should reach out to.
Helping match families with programs that can help alleviate stress in the household is one way of staying ahead of the expected increase in abuse.
In homes where stressors could cause a risk of abuse, “We have Healthy Families and Healthy Start coaches that guide parents, help manage their stress and provide a safe outlet to express fears and frustrations. … We have teams that can go in and work with those families long-term to keep that family intact so that their children don’t have to come into the foster care system,” Cannon said.
The organization’s website chsfl.org has a variety of resources and referral forms for supportive services of all types all throughout the community. It also has a donation page for people who want to support CHS in its mission.
“I’ll say our ultimate plea to our community is if you are person who is feeling overwhelmed, if you’re feeling helpless, if you’re feeling scared, if you’re in need of services, you’re not alone. Please contact us,” Cannon said.
If your family needs help, call 211 to be connected to resources. You can also visit chsfl.org for more resources.
Originally posted by: Pensacola News Journal