Foster children

A decline in children in foster care during the coronavirus pandemic has some advocates alarmed.

Since the start of the pandemic, official reports to child protection agencies have declined across the United States by 20% to 70%, and the Clatsop CASA program is concerned.

The staff and community volunteers who are a part of Clatsop CASA work with children who have experienced abuse and neglect. This concern stands in sharp contrast to the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare Division’s news release in January that “despite the challenges of the global COVID-19 pandemic and historic wildfires … the division was able to reduce the use of foster care to a historic low.”

This assertion misses a fundamental point made with compelling evidence by the federal Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and the American Pediatric Society: the pandemic itself is the cause of the reduction in numbers of children entering foster care — and this is due to the simple fact that children and families are more isolated than ever before, making child abuse and neglect harder to detect and prevent.

Nearly every evidence-based publication dealing with child abuse and family violence has sounded the alarms because the dramatic national drop in children entering foster care means that vulnerable children are not receiving the help they need. Yet the child welfare division cites the statistic as evidence of a positive accomplishment.

Studies have revealed that pandemic-related challenges, such as social isolation, loss of a job, financial hardship, parenting stress, increased alcohol and illicit drug consumption and emotional distress can significantly increase the risk of family violence, including child abuse. However, because of the pandemic-related restrictions, professionals — like teachers, coaches, social workers and other providers — who are trained to recognize and report child abuse cases have limited access to children and their families.

While overall reports of abuse are down, many hospitals have reported a sharp rise in child admission due to severe injuries from family violence. These findings indicate that the reduced number of child abuse reports observed in data across the county is due to underreporting and not due to an actual reduction in child abuse incidence.

Given the significant and well-studied impacts of financial hardship and psychosocial stress on child maltreatment, many researchers suggest that child welfare agencies, as well as health care providers and educators, should be more vigilant about detecting possible child abuse signs during their online visits to children.

The real problem with the child welfare division taking credit for the reduction in children entering foster care is that they are celebrating what is likely the opposite of a success story, and in doing so are ignoring the need for more action.

Child abuse is preventable; implementation of strategies, including strengthening household economic supports, better and more equitable access to mental health providers and creating family-friendly work policies and support systems can reduce stress during difficult times and increase children’s opportunities to thrive in safe, stable and nurturing households.

Importantly, organizations like the Centers for Disease Control are warning providers to prepare for an influx of children entering foster care as schools begin to reopen and the cumulative impacts of abuse are realized and reported. Is the child welfare division putting into place the resources needed for the predicted surge in need?

Clatsop CASA is concerned that the division may be failing to prepare for what is likely a very difficult time ahead for Oregon children.

Nakesha Womble is executive director of the Clatsop Court Appointed Special Advocates program.