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Child Welfare in Ohio: Where's the Village?

With children away from school and daycare settings, their teachers and other trusted members of the community are unable to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. (Adobe Stock)
With children away from school and daycare settings, their teachers and other trusted members of the community are unable to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. (Adobe Stock)
April 22, 2020

First of two parts

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With many Ohio families isolated together during the COVID-19 pandemic, children's advocates are worried about kids' health and safety. Many county children's services agencies are noting a substantial drop in reports of abuse and neglect since the "Stay-at-Home" order went into effect.

Susan Walther, director of Warren County Children Services, said the "village" it takes to raise a child just isn't available right now.

"We depend on providers, daycares, schools, people in the community to keep children safe and to be our eyes on the children," she said, "the ones that we are involved with, and the ones that we are not yet involved with."

At Lorain County Children's Services, executive director Kristen Fox-Berki said child welfare calls were down 65% in March. She said the pandemic is creating uncertainty, anxiety and tension in households that can lead to conflict.

"This is a stressful time for everybody; for our families, it's very stressful, and we want to make sure our children are safe," she said. "We are the safety net, and please help us in protecting children."

She said ongoing cases are keeping workers busy, since some children are lingering in care and more difficult to reunify with families at this time. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Fox-Berki said it's more crucial now than ever to check on the health and safety of young family members, friends and neighbors. (The state's reporting hotline is 855-OH-CHILD.)

At Clermont County Job and Family Services, assistant director Tina Pocock said children's services workers still are on duty around the clock, investigating reports and checking in on families.

"We still have workers out on the front lines every day," she said. "If families are struggling and they are stressed, we want to know those things so that we can continue to ensure that kids stay safe. We are still here. We are still going out seeing our families, and that will not be compromised."

While new reports of child abuse and neglect may be down now, Walther and others said they expect a significant surge in the coming weeks and months.

"And I anticipate that we're going to see an increase when parents start getting sick," she said. "Another concern I have is when kinship providers who are elderly start getting sick. When children start re-entering schools, daycares in the community, I think we're going to be hearing about a lot that happened that we didn't know about."

In Part 2 on Thursday, we look at how agencies are protecting their workers' safety in the pandemic.

Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH