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By Sarah Ovaska 

The spread of the novel coronavirus has meant an unprecedented retreat from our everyday lives – schools unexpectedly shut down, restaurants closed, and many jobs suddenly disappeared.

Children as a whole seem to be avoiding the more serious health effects of COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean they are all safe. The closure of public schools and some child care facilities means some vulnerable children could be staying in homes that may not have been stable or safe before the pandemic.

“You think about families who are isolated and how a small situation can set things off” in normal times, said Erin Drew, the executive director of The Family Place, a community support center in Transylvania County.

Add social isolation and mounting economic pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic to existing substance abuse or mental health struggles and “it’s almost a trifecta of issues that can blow up,” Drew said.

That unsettling truth has those working in and around the child welfare system trying to figure out how to best protect children and support families from afar in this unexpected new normal.

Switch to virtual support in WNC

In Transylvania County, where community groups built their ambitious community-level Get Set program to improve the lives of young children, COVID-19 has presented an enormous challenge, said Jaime Laughter, the manager of the western North Carolina county.

“We’re all having to socially isolate, but at the same time, that really compounds all those different issues” that struggling families face, Laughter said.

A patchwork of government and community groups are trying to do what they can – county library employees are manning hotlines for community members seeking food assistance or other help, while community centers throughout the mountainous county are offering free Wi-Fi to anyone parked in the center’s lots.

Staff of The Family Place, a family support organization, are dropping off disinfected activity packs of crafts for those with young children and hosting virtual meet-ups for parents to talk about life during a pandemic with young children.

Meanwhile, Family Place caseworkers are also dropping by a local shelter for homeless families to have socially distant walks with parents in need of a break from the pressures of living in close proximity with other families with no other outlets.

In addition, county child protective services workers are volunteering at food distribution sites for children as a way of just being able to observe and pick up on any problems.

“That way we can at least lay eyes on the kids and see how they are,” said Darrell Renfroe, Transylvania County’s Department of Social Services director, who oversees child welfare investigations.

School closures, financial pressures weigh on families

In Transylvania County and across the state, concerns mount about the effects of keeping public schools closed, as well as the economic fallout from business closures that have prompted more than 705,000 North Carolinians to file for unemployment in a five-week span.

In the best of times, there are struggles with the government system designed to keep children safe and families supported. Even before the pandemic, the state was already dealing with record numbers of children entering North Carolina’s foster care system, in part from the fallout from the ongoing opioid addiction crisis.

“It’s absolutely something for us to all be concerned about,” said Sharon Hirsch, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse NC, a non-profit organization, about the risk of child maltreatment. “The biggest risk factors for child abuse and neglect are economic stressors and social isolation – we’ve got both of those things happening right now.”

April is also Child Abuse Prevention Month, when community groups typically set out blue pinwheels in public spaces to raise awareness and talk about ways communities can work together to notice and fight against such problems. This year, groups are trying to figure out how  — from afar — they can carry out such a mission.

The stakes are high for the short and long term. Trauma experienced in childhood — whether it’s the stress of living with a mentally ill parent, a stint of homelessness, or witnessing domestic abuse — have lasting effects on children that undermine their own health years down the road, studies show.

A continuously growing body of scientific research over the past 20 years has linked these adverse childhood experiences, referred to as ACEs, to psychological as well as physical health challenges later in life. Essentially, the more toxic stress a child experiences, the more likely he or she may face future issues in their lives: difficulties in school and work settings, their own battles with substance abuse, or susceptibility to chronic health problems that shorten lives.

It’s why child abuse prevention work has moved in recent years to connect family units to broader communities, in the hope that giving families and children support to weather the challenges of life will limit those adverse conditions.

But so much of this support happens in public and community settings, from parenting support groups to nurse-visiting programs for newborns to simple community gatherings to get to know neighbors, Hirsch said.

And COVID-19 has put a hold on much of that, for now.

Having parents and children under the same roof with no breaks for anyone is trying for most families, said Karen McLeod, the executive director of Benchmarks, an alliance of provider groups, including those that work around the child welfare system.

Those that are dealing with the fears that go along with not having the money for rent or struggles with addiction or mental health may need even more help.

“For families that are struggling, school is a source of respite,” McLeod said. “For that parent to have eight hours where they know their child is being fed and is safe and is being nurtured is really important. It’s eight hours of that respite time every day.”

Incidents expected to rise, behind closed doors. 

Domestic violence shelters are also bracing for an influx of need during the course of the shutdown, with some victims now in nearly continual contact with their abusers. Children, of course, live in many of those homes and may witness abusive conditions or be subjected themselves to physical or sexual abuse.

While police in some locales such as Charlotte are seeing reports of domestic violence rise, that is less likely to happen in cases of child maltreatment. The reasons for that are multiple, including the hidden nature of the abuse and the difficulty that children and youth face reaching out for help.

A large portion of reports of suspected or known child maltreatment come in from school employees, about 20 percent nationally. North Carolina, like many other states, requires all adults, from teachers to parents to neighbors, to report allegations or suspicions of childhood abuse or neglect to county social services departments.

But the schools are closed.

“It’s all going on behind closed doors,” McLeod said. “The only time we’re going to know [about abuse] is if someone is making a call, and people aren’t seeing kids as much.”

Some things have remained constant in the course of the pandemic, however.

Child welfare workers based out of North Carolina’s county social services departments are considered critical employees and are following up still on suspected cases of abuse and neglect. Foster parents are still taking in children in need of a safe home, though visits with biological parents may now be happening virtually through FaceTime calls instead of in person, Renfroe said.

Renfroe and his counterparts around the state aren’t mistaking the drop in reports as a sign that things are all well.

“Our fear is that once all this is over, many, many things will come up and our numbers will greatly increase,” Renfroe said.

Sarah Ovaska

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in Orange County, who has called North Carolina home for well over a decade. She’s reported on criminal justice, education, health and government issues at publications...