Reports of alleged child abuse and neglect began to drop significantly starting in March of this year once the spread of COVID-19 instigated a massive shut down of public spaces.
According to data obtained from the Fairfax County Department of Family Services, 714 total reports of alleged abuse and neglect were made in February of this year. In March, that number dropped to 504 total reports, in April it dropped even lower to 278 reports. In May there was a slight rise to 313 reports.
This time last year, those numbers were significantly higher. In March of 2019, a little over 700 total reports were made and in April over 500 reports were made. In May of last year, there was over 600 total reports were made.
“We’ve been tracking sort of month to month, week to week because we were really concerned about what happens as children are not in the faces of responsible adults,” Director of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services Michael Becketts said.
Fairfax CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate, is a non-profit agency that serves the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. CASA volunteers work as advocates for children in situations of abuse or neglect.
Over the past few months, the number of referrals to Fairfax CASA have been cut in half. According to Executive Director of Fairfax CASA Darcy Hubbard Cunningham, between March and August of 2019 58 new children were referred and between those same months this year, only 24 new children have been referred to the agency.
“The vast majority of reports about child abuse or suspected child abuse or neglect come from mandated reporters,” Cunningham said. “And most of our mandated reporters are teachers or people that work in the schools….and when school is taken out of the equation, we lose a whole set of eyes that have been trained and also given a responsibility make these calls about safety concerns.”
Fairfax County Public Schools will be conducted virtually starting in September and went completely virtual in March of this year due to the spread of COVID-19. Fairfax CASA and the Department of Family Services have mostly been operating online for the past few months.
“I was very scared at the beginning,” Cunningham said. “Because if we can't see our children, if we can't lay eyes on them, if we can't interact with them, how can we report that they're safe?”
Before COVID-19, volunteers were required to see their children face-to-face at least once a month, but Fairfax CASA required its volunteers to see their children face-to-face twice a month. During quarantine, CASA volunteers started seeing their assigned children virtually over video platforms every week.
“The Department of Family Services had to put parents’ visitation on hold,” Cunningham said. “Parents who normally were visiting with their children while their children were in foster care have not been allowed to physically be in the same room with their children. They just started back up in July.”
As procedures moved to an online platform, the Department of Family Services began to adapt.
A parent support hotline was created to help parents navigate issues brought up during COVID-19. Becketts said that some of this would include helping parents think of games to play or TV shows to watch with their kids.
“And while that might sound trivial, it was really a way to open up a dialogue,” Becketts said.
Division Director of Children, Youth and Families Oriane Eriksen said that they have created supportive services for families in both English and Spanish. These services are listed on their website, some including disability and caregiver resources, tax assistance, SNAP and medicaid help and Meals on Wheels.
“It's given our community members and our clients sort of an ability to connect with us in a different way,” Eriksen said.
Becketts says that the department pays attention to the financial condition of the Fairfax community. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Virginia in June was at about eight percent.
“I think it's important to sort of say out loud that the abuse of children is not an issue of poverty,” Becketts said.
He says that families losing their jobs and business closing down “may be adding to family stress, which could lead to some violence, neglect.” Becketts adds that high wage earners are also feeling financial stress that can lead to neglect.
According to Becketts, the number of reports of neglect and abuse are beginning to rise but “not nearly to the level that we would expect in the same time period in previous years.”
“When in doubt, call us,” Becketts said “What people might not recognize is it may not be that call that gets us sort of triggered. But it could be the third time we've heard it today. And that might cause us to say where there's smoke, there may be some fire.”
The Fairfax County Child Protective Services hotline number can be reached at 703-324-7400.