I Can’t Unsee That – Identifying Child Abuse & Neglect in a Virtual World
The onslaught of COVID-19 has changed how we do nearly everything—including how we identify child abuse and neglect in a virtual world. Nothing has changed in terms of the law or reporting, only the approaches to how mandated reporters come in contact with children.
Remote technology provides a unique opportunity to literally see into the home lives of children. Hybrid learning and telehealth visits can aid tremendously in primary prevention by allowing educators and health professionals to connect virtually with students, patients, and their families—despite limitations imposed by the pandemic.
Complexity of numbers
When COVID-19 first hit in March and kids were sent home to learn remotely, reports of child abuse and neglect went down. On the surface, that might sound encouraging. But according to Brice Meade, supervisor of the Intake Unit at Monroe County Child Protective Services, reports of ER visits for child injuries and trauma increased, along with domestic violence. The reality was that mandated reporters—the eyes and ears of our communities—were no longer there in person to observe and recognize the indicators of abuse or neglect.
In the fall, when schools reopened with hybrid instruction, and other professionals like doctors and therapists started seeing patients again, reports of child abuse and neglect returned close to baseline. Julie Nichols, administrative caseworker for Monroe County Child and Family Services, attributes the uptick in reporting to the diligence of mandated reporters in making virtual connections with children. Nichols confirms that COVID has caused “an increase in isolation, substance abuse, domestic violence calls, and acuity of mental health concerns,” with an ability to “exacerbate existing problems within a family.” She stresses the importance of being proactive—checking in with families before things go wrong—instead of reactive.
Simplicity in numbers
So how can professionals be more deliberate in looking for signs of child abuse and neglect in a virtual world? Amy Kiehl-Smith, a fifth grade teacher at Greece Pine Brooke Elementary, believes it starts by creating community and an environment of trust within the virtual classroom.
As part of the Greece school system’s emphasis on social-emotional learning, Kiehl-Smith implemented a daily check-in on Google Meet, with a simple 3-2-1 numbered system for kids to self-identify how they’re feeling that morning. A 3 means the child is ready to learn while, conversely, a 1 indicates they might be struggling. She uses this information to periodically check in with the 1s and 2s throughout the day and week, to keep a pulse on what might be happening at home. Additionally, the 3s are encouraged to reach out to the 1s and 2s, to form a peer support network.
Nichols understands why this model works for building community in Kiehl-Smith’s classroom. She says, “We know that children are much more likely to disclose any abuse or neglect when they are connected to other adults and feel safe.” She explains that compassionate listening is on one end of the proactive spectrum, while actively watching out for red flags is on the other.
Are there any concerns with the child’s home condition? There is a difference between a messy home and a neglectful one, so things to look for include medications within reach (especially if there are known mental health issues in the family), drug paraphernalia, chemicals or other hazardous materials accessible to young children, lack of electricity or heat (in winter months), obvious fire hazards, and signs of serious bug or rodent infestations.
Additional approaches include recognizing a possible sign of abuse or neglect, and asking questions. If there are visible injuries on a child, look for opportunities to have a dialogue with the student or patient and their family. While parents may be the source of issues, they are also part of the solution. We need their involvement to solve abuse or neglect, so don’t be afraid to talk to them or—in certain situations—to tell them that you are filing a report. (https://www.dorightbykids.org/how-to-ask-questions/)
We should recognize that parents are more stressed than ever in this COVID era, balancing work and hybrid learning at home, but if you have a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect, you should call CPS. Meade says that 90% of calls to the CPS hotline are for neglect. He stresses that, “Just because you don’t think something rises to the level of abuse, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report it.”
Katie Oinen is a mental health coordinator at Bivona Child Advocacy Center who triages incoming referrals for children and their families who have received services at the center and assigns those referrals to a mental health provider. Back in mid-March, Oinen and her colleagues had to transition from in-person to telehealth visits with their clients virtually overnight.
While Oinen is on the back end of the process, after child abuse or neglect has occurred, she views the pivot to telehealth as a positive outcome of COVID-19. She says, “Telehealth has allowed for a broader and more in-depth view into what a client experiences on a daily basis. Seeing clients in their home environment has created an opportunity to talk about challenges and stressors that may not have come up if they were solely coming into the office.”
An added benefit is that telehealth has also allowed her to provide mental health services in a more consistent manner by removing transportation and scheduling barriers. The accessibility of remote technology benefits children whose parents who used to struggle with getting to appointments or finding childcare for their other children. Oinen is optimistic about continuing with telehealth services in a post-COVID world, along with other creative ways to connect kids and their families with community resources.
In the end, the goal of primary prevention is to connect a parent with the school, or to a resource in the community, to work with and support the family. Opening channels of communication with diligence and honesty is the first step toward building relationships with families to keep kids safe.
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A reporter may form a reasonable suspicion that child abuse or neglect is occuring when two factors are present:
The reporter has information that suggests a child has been hurt or harmed by a parent/person legally responsible for the child.
Another experienced mandated reporter would suspect child abuse or neglect if given the same information.
You may have heard stories about mandated reporters calling the Hotline, only to discover that CPS could not take action. You may not be familiar with the five criteria and you may not know what to expect when you call in a report. You may have questions about whether you should tell the child’s family that you called the Hotline about them.
In addition, agencies, institutions or workplaces that employ mandated reporters should have written protocols and procedures to guide mandated reporters through the reporting process.
You may not know about the protocols and procedures for child abuse reporting at your agency, institution or workplace. It may be helpful to contact your supervisor before calling the Hotline.
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