Child welfare officials cope during pandemic

Phone calls often replace in-person visits to children

Child welfare officials in Illinois told a panel of state lawmakers Sept. 14 that the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered but not completely prevented their efforts to monitor children at risk of abuse or neglect.

"Without question, the pandemic has been and continues to be extremely challenging for all of us, both personally and professionally," Marc Smith, acting director of the Illinois Department of Children and Families, told a Senate panel during a virtual meeting. "But everyone who works for, or in partnership with us, has kept their eyes on our mission to keep children safe."

Smith said one of the first things DCFS did was to move its child abuse reporting hotline, officially known as the State Central Register, to a remote environment so that employees could answer the phones from their homes.

Gayle Hopper, who manages the hotline, said the people who answer those phones have been working remotely since March 23.

"The hotline today continues to work remotely and staff are working from home every day," Hopper said.

Hopper noted that there was a sharp decline in the number of reports received from "mandatory reporters" – which are licensed professionals such as teachers and health care workers who are required by law to report cases of suspected abuse or neglect – especially during the early weeks of the pandemic.

In response, she said, agency officials reached out to members of the American Pediatrics Association and to the Illinois State Board of Education to instruct doctors and teachers about how to report to the hotline, even when they were only seeing children remotely.

By July and August, she said, call volume began to pick up again, exceeding the numbers reached during the same months in 2019, even though the total number of calls this year is about 18 percent lower than last year.

"This can be attributed to the increase of reporting by law enforcement, by the steady reporting of medical professionals, and the community observing or reporting firsthand information of child maltreatment," she said.

Mike Lubelfeld, superintendent of the North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, said the pandemic has been challenging for teachers and others who were only able to meet their students remotely this spring. But he said his district has come up with other solutions.

"Just out of an abundance of caution, we had secretaries, social workers, teacher's aides and a family specialist double-checking in with children and families, just to make sure everybody was OK," he said. "So I'm not going to say we've had no findings (of abuse or neglect). We have had less. Part of it is because we don't have control, so to speak, of the kids being with us, but I think that our families do work with us."

Officials with private agencies that provide child welfare services on contract with DCFS said they have faced similar challenges.

Bill Steinhauser, president and CEO of Bethany for Children and Families, a social service agency that serves the Quad Cities area, said caseworkers at that agency are doing what they can to stay in contact with families.

"They basically are staying in contact through either FaceTime or Google Meet, but also going out, directly talking to families, practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. It's kept them all safe," he said.

But Steinhauser noted that Illinois families have suffered unique financial and emotional strains during the pandemic, which has affected children's welfare.

"Our families are experiencing economic stress, and also just not very familiar with being around each other all that often," he said. "And that stress as well as economic stress are causing our families to do as any other family, which is experience dysfunction. And they're trying to escape from the reality of COVID-19.

"We're also seeing an increase in substance abuse, and mental health seems to be aggravated or intensified. And those services, because of where we're located, are difficult for many families to access."

Contact Peter Hancock at phancock@capitolnewsillinois.com. Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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