We are heading toward the end of National Child Abuse Awareness month but, of course, raising awareness about how we prevent child abuse from happening is always important. The pandemic and the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” rules that have governed our lives over the last weeks and months are making it more difficult for children and families who are already living on the margins to survive and thrive, and pushing families into the margins who weren’t there prior, even as those rules seek to keep everyone safe and healthy.
Schools are closed, after-school activities are not running, and other places where children and youth are under the care of adults are shut down. Not only are resources that families rely on harder to access, such as meals for kids, but there are also fewer opportunities for children who may be in abusive family situations to be in front of “mandated reporters” of child abuse. That’s concerning. How do we, as a community, do our best to keep children safe in this unprecedented time, when we know it’s already challenging to do so?
Washington State’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) recently shared a campaign and related email for National Child Abuse Awareness month, and in response to the consequences of children not being in front of mandated reporters, encouraging people to “be a hero to a child in need” by reporting suspected child abuse or neglect to ones’ local intake office. They asked people to “be the eyes and ears” and offered up a 24/7 phone number to call to do so. At first glance this seems like the right message. If even one child is “missed” by the system that is supposed to protect them, it’s a tragedy. Netflix shows like “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” horrifically highlight a flawed system and our deepest fears about not being able to “save” a child who is suffering at the hands of a family member. But we also know that most children who enter foster care do so because of neglect – not abuse. We know that neglect often looks like food insecurity or housing insecurity, a lack of adequate childcare or community support. We also know that no matter why a child or young person enters foster care, it is a traumatic experience being separated from your family.
We are all feeling the strain of uncertainty, the stress of figuring out how to get through today and trying to plan for a fuzzy future. For families with school-aged children or children who might otherwise have been in childcare outside the home, there is an added stressor. Some families are headed by people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic and are facing fears of not being able to feed or house their children.
It’s also important to note that COVID-19—like the foster care system—does not impact all people and communities equally. Black people, across the country, account for a higher percentage of confirmed cases of coronavirus and death from the virus, compared to their share of the entire population. There has been an outsized impact on Indigenous communities. As well, Black and Indigenous children are overrepresented in the foster care system. Black children are also more likely to be placed in foster care and remain in care longer than white children.
So, when we ask people to “be a hero to a child in need,” during a time when so many are struggling with loss of income, and the impact on their lives, and without context, what are we actually asking people to do?
“If we know that this time might increase stress for parents, then let’s incent action and call on our communities to help our beautiful families in need of critical resources, supports and services to strengthen their lives and those of their children- as opposed to triggering additional trauma and stress by entering them into a system that does not guarantee positive outcomes for children. If we know that the bulk of our cases involve neglect, let’s be diligent about showing our families that there are people who care, that services are available, and that there is still hope in the midst of this sad time for so many,” Alise Morrissey, Director of Family Impact at Children’s Home Society of Washington and parent who previously experienced the foster care system, shares.
As a community, we are responsible for acknowledging, confronting and chipping away at the historical and current racism that keeps Black, Indigenous, and Latinx children more vulnerable to being separated from their families. That includes the ways in which Amara and other organizations like ours have perpetuated this cycle. It’s also important for Amara and our partner organizations to figure out how we change a system that bends toward removing children from families first before, for instance, asking them what they need to remain together. Amara has struggled with this and we have made a lot of mistakes along the way. We continue to figure out how to right these wrongs and do better.
Alise continues, “When I look back at my involvement in the child welfare system, I wish I’d heard, ‘What do you need to thrive?’ Until we can guarantee that families will flourish as a result of system involvement, we need to be very cautious about the messaging we share with our communities because my hope is that more families will know people care, and we can and will be strengthened during this time.”
If we are going to “be the eyes and ears” for children who are in abusive situations and to do all we can to protect children who are not in front of teachers and other mandated reporters, we need to do that with the understanding of the racism and white savior mentality that leads to overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children in foster care. If we are going to do all we can to support stronger families, then we need to do that by making sure families have the resources they need to maintain healthy homes first.
How You Can Help:
- Check in with your neighbors and offer your support
- Donate to nonprofits supporting youth and families
- Donate to local food and diaper banks
- Tips for parents
- Learn more about the impact of racism on foster care
- Challenge what you think you know about foster care and take action with Fostering Family