The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many troubling vulnerabilities in our society. While many inequities and insecurities are being exposed and exacerbated by the virus, one area that is most worrisome has to do with child abuse and neglect. The systems in place to address the needs of abused and neglected children are being curtailed to accommodate precautions meant to reduce the spread of the highly contagious disease. While public safety is obviously a valid concern, the measures to stop the virus have serious implications for this defenseless population.
The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) has put together directives for its workforce to integrate personal safety precautions into their mission to help with the scourge of child abuse and neglect.
How Has COVID-19 Changed the Process?
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States a few months ago, the system to protect children involved a lot more in-person contact between the staff of the DCPP and the families in the system. In-person interviews and home visits were an integral part of the process to validate or disprove troubling reports of abuse and neglect, as well as to determine the fitness of children remaining in homes.
Since the start of the pandemic, however, reports of child abuse and neglect have been limited, as have the efforts to investigate family members in person or to physically visit the homes of the families involved.
Interviews and home visits now mostly happen on video calls, which are obviously restrictive. Courts also have limited face-to-face interactions. Most court-related work now happens over video conferences. Cases that do get heard make up a small percentage of the overall caseloads that are pending actions or judgements, leaving families in limbo.
How Does a Case Move Through the DCPP System?
Much has changed in this socially distanced environment, but some things remain the same. The DCPP process is usually initiated by a claim of abuse or neglect that is reported to the agency by a third party. Upon receiving the report, the DCPP is required by law to look into the claim within 24 hours. The process involves an interview with the parent or caregiver, as well as the child. Others with information related to the claim may also be interviewed. An inspection of the home is also part of the standard procedure. These initial investigation measures often result in a determination by the caseworker that the complaint seems invalid, which would cause the case to be closed.
However, if the caseworker suspects that the allegations are true, the case will be opened for further review. The court may become involved right away if the caseworker recommends services, or if the situation warrants restrictions on parental contact or removal of the child from the home.
In the past, the process often involved many hearings and court appearances, as well as ongoing visits and follow-up interviews by caseworkers. As a result of COVID-19, the in-person visits and interviews, the appearances in court, and the support services required are limited, if they are accessible at all.
Are Child Abuse Reports Increasing During the Pandemic?
In normal times, kids are around other caring adults, such as teachers, coaches, and neighbors. Now, these interactions are less frequent since kids are told to stay indoors and to keep their distance from others.
Currently, evidence of abuse and neglect may not be as apparent as before because of restrictions. Due to this, the likelihood of abuses being discovered and reported goes down. As children are locked away with their abusers, there are fewer reports being received by the agencies that exist solely to help. Hotlines are receiving fewer calls, and reports were down 32 percent between the months of March and April.
The Impact of Virtual Conferences
The in-person nature of the work at the DCPP has been impeded by the pandemic, as investigations and court proceedings go online. In-person observations are being replaced by video or phone calls, providing much more limited views of these situations. These workarounds are offering narrow insights into household dynamics, restricting the abilities of caseworkers.
Court Closures Leaves Families in Difficult Situations
While the courts have been handling emerging cases, they have put on hold many ongoing cases. While trials are suspended, many children in temporary care remain separated from their parents. Counseling and treatment centers are not operating either, leaving parents that need services unable to receive any help. This disruption in services does not allow them to do the work that is necessary to meet the court’s requirements to regain contact with their children.
Are Caseworkers Still Going into Homes?
Much of the work at the DCPP has been handled by caseworkers and other staff working from home. When caseworkers need to enter the field, the agency has designated emergency response teams who are able to enter homes while being protected by personal protective equipment that is provided by the DCPP.
Some of the children who are living in temporary placement have been in contact with their families by phone and video chats. Others have even been able to visit in person while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
If a family is involved in a DCPP investigation during this unprecedented time, it is important to contact a lawyer right away. A lawyer will address the concerns of the family and ensure that their rights are protected.
Cherry Hill DCPP Attorneys at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker Help Families Facing Charges of Abuse or Neglect
If your family is immersed in a DCPP investigation that involves child abuse or neglect, you should talk to one of our dedicated Cherry Hill DCPP attorneys at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker. We have experience guiding families through the DCPP process. Our goal is to help families stay together. Complete our online form or call us 856-795-9400 for an initial consultation. Located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we represent clients throughout South Jersey, including Haddonfield, Marlton, Medford, Moorestown, Mount Laurel, and Voorhees.