Big Drop In Child Abuse Reports In LA -- And That Has Advocates Worried
Reports of suspected child abuse in L.A. County have plummeted in recent weeks. That may sound like good news during normal times, but in a COVID-19 world, that drop has advocates very concerned.
Since the middle of March, L.A. County has seen a 40-60% decrease in the number of suspected child abuse reports from the public, said Bobby Cagle, director of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
"I've been doing this for in excess of 31 years and this is the first time we have seen a phenomenon like this where reports drop so significantly," he said.
That has child advocates concerned. People who are mandated to report suspected child abuse, like teachers, can't flag what they don't see when kids are out of school, said Wende Julien, CEO of CASA of LA.
"These children are out of sight and that's really frightening," she said.
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DCFS usually sees a large increase in the number of reports after kids come back from summer break, said Cagle, who adds that he expects something like that might happen after children start to return to school.
The increase "may be even more pronounced than what we've seen historically," he said.
AN 'INCREDIBLY OVERBURDENED' SYSTEM
An increase of suspected child abuse reports could be very challenging if it comes at a time when foster parents, courts and nonprofits are stretched thin because of the new coronavirus.
"The child welfare system as a whole may become incredibly overburdened," said Jen Braun, president of the Alliance for Children's Rights, an organization that provides free legal services and other supportive programs for abused and neglected children.
DCFS says in a typical year it serves about 34,000 children.
The agency is recruiting additional foster families who can step in if there's a future uptick in suspected reports that lead to action being taken, Cagle said.
Meanwhile, advocates are worried about how coronavirus is affecting current foster families. "We just got a call from a really amazing woman," said Braun. "She is caring for three foster kids who are siblings in her home and she just got laid off from her job."
Older foster youth who are now providing for themselves are also feeling the effects of a cratering economy. Many have been laid off. And they may have young children of their own. These foster youth already live on a highwire, said Julien of CASA of LA.
"Something like this can really send them into a difficult situation where they don't have a safe place to live and aren't able to meet their very basic needs like food," she said.
'IT'S JUST A REALLY BAD STORM'
Nonprofits that provide housing, mental health therapy, legal assistance and other services for abused kids are feeling a financial pinch, too. They're seeing fundraising events cancelled and other donations dwindle.
"It's just a really bad storm of things coming together," Julien said.
There are a lot of people doing what they can, Braun said. Social workers are still responding to emergency calls and going into the community. Attorneys and judges are working together to hold some hearings virtually. And volunteers are working with nonprofits to get iPads and laptops to foster kids who need them to keep up with their schoolwork.
On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced $42 million in funding for children who are at greater risk for abuse or neglect because of the pandemic. That includes almost $7 million for social worker overtime and additional outreach and nearly $2 million to extend foster care payments for the roughly 200 youth who age out of the system every month.
"It's not a time where anybody, especially children ... can afford to be treated like a unit or a widget in a system," Braun said. "And when resources are thin, that's sometimes happening."
IF YOU SUSPECT CHILD ABUSE OR NEGLECT:
- LA County Child Protection Hotline: 1 (800) 540-4000
- Alliance for Children's Rights
- Court Appointed Special Advocates For Children (CASA of LA)
- Childhelp National Abuse Hotline: 1 (800) 422-4453