Advocates warn of child abuse increase during stay-at-home order
With schools shut down, child abuse prevention efforts have been turned upside down
By Donna Moxley
Granite State News Collaborative
On Tuesday, advocates working on behalf of New Hampshire’s children pitched staffing a new “warmline” for families struggling to keep it together during the COVID-19 crisis.
On Wednesday, Gov. John Sununu announced the new service in his daily press conference.
It’s an indication of how quickly advocates are working to address the fact that child abuse prevention efforts have been turned upside down.
Consistent with those in other states, child abuse and neglect reports were down 50 percent in New Hampshire a week after schools here closed. Part of the problem is that the eyes and ears that usually recognize problems – teachers, bus drivers, day-care providers – aren’t seeing the kids anymore. Now that they’re home full time, their caregivers might be overwhelmed and stressed out, a well-known recipe for domestic disaster.
Everyone from mail carriers, neighbors, and relatives are asked to keep an eye out for signs of abuse, but advocates know that won’t be enough to make up the difference. The warmline idea came up during continued discussions among representatives from Waypoint – a nonprofit agency (formerly known as Child and Family Services) that works with the state and federal government on child welfare – and from the N.H. Dept. of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), about ways to keep an eye on struggling families with at-risk kids.
“We said, what if we created a line where families were able to get some consultation, get some advice,” said Borja Alvarez de Toledo, the president/CEO of Waypoint, on Wednesday. “This conversation happened yesterday and today the governor is announcing it!”
Procedures are still being worked out in anticipation of the service’s launch Monday at 8:30 a.m., but there is a basic plan in place. It’s being called a “warmline,” not a hotline, because it’s meant to offer parents and caregivers guidance, not respond to emergencies. The line – at 800-640-6486 – will be live from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and one-hour consultations with appropriate professionals will be scheduled on the following day.
“This is for families who are really struggling,” Borja said. “They need to figure out how to work together in these conditions. How do you create structure? How do you discipline kids in a way that is helpful and appropriate?”
Social workers and others who usually meet with families as often as twice a week are now working mostly in solitude, having moved most of their caseloads into phone calls and Zoom meetings. Many of them will now be handling these warmline consultations using the time they’re not spending driving all over the state.
The speed with which the coronavirus has shut down the usual manner of doing business has left child advocates around the state and country to face a frightening reality: More children are surely being abused during this crisis, and children already on the radar of these advocates won’t have the same level of protection they’ve experienced in the past while they’re shut in with their families.
Moira O’Neill, director of New Hampshire’s Office of the Child Advocate, said children have lost their “safety net” at the exact time when tensions are likely to run high.
“This could be such an exciting time for families to be spending more time with each other,” O’Neill said, “but, in fact, there’s so much stress involved with not knowing about the virus and not being able to go to work and pay the bills … These are the kinds of things that stress the family into dysfunction on any given day.”
From Fort Worth, Texas, where a spike in cases of severe abuse against young children was recently reported, to Seattle, WA, the first U.S. coronavirus hotspot, to New Hampshire, child welfare officials are struggling to care for at-risk kids. And states including Massachusetts and New York have reported cases of COVID-19 infections in social workers. In some states, officials short on personal protective gear have reported going to homes anyway when a child was in immediate danger.
There’s been no time, said Alvarez de Toledo, for one state to figure it all out and stand as an example for the rest. He’s New Hampshire’s representative in the Children’s Home Society of America, a consortium of child advocates in 27 states. The group has been holding weekly COVID-19 meetings, sharing best practices, and brainstorming. New Hampshire started a national trend, for example, in delivering meals by school bus to homebound students.
“I think we’re all building the bicycle as we’re riding it,” he said. “There’s nobody that’s said ‘this is how to do it.’”
And there are still holes. Runaway and homeless young people who usually get by couch surfing and hanging out in public spaces are in some cases living in their cars, and Waypoint’s drop-in center for them in Manchester has reduced hours for clothing and food pickup, and limited contact with people who are usually there to help. No hanging out to socialize, or use the computer.
“It’s devastating not to be able to do more,” Alvarez de Toledo said. “We continue to do a lot but not at the intensity we used to.”
And the Zoom or Skype meetings are a decent substitute for a lot of interactions if everyone has the technical ability to take part. Some parents don’t have smart phones or tablets, or they have to buy the least expensive data plans that would be drained by a video conference. Others can no longer use WiFi at public locations like coffee shops or libraries that are now closed.
In New Hampshire, officials have been sourcing inexpensive tablets for families to hold meetings and for kids to do their schoolwork. But there wasn’t funding for them. On Wednesday, Sununu also announced $2 million in new DCYF funding to convert part-time violence prevention specialists to full-time, and to expand substance abuse programs. Sununu also said the funding will pay for the new phone line and remote technology.
Protecting New Hampshire’s children during the COVID-19 crisis is “of the utmost importance,” he said. “There’s definitely a gap in the system, and that’s why the state has to step up and provide those resources.”
To report suspected child abuse, call 800-894-5533. To learn how to recognize the signs of abuse and other ways to help protect children from abuse, visit https://knowandtell.org.
The new “warmline,” which will be activated Monday, April 6, at 8:30 a.m., is 800-640-6486.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.