Cokiena Fuller worries every day what might be happening behind closed doors as families shelter at home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Fuller, a supervisor for the state Department of Children and Families, says her agency has seen a significant drop in abuse and neglect reports in recent weeks. But advocates fear the prevalence of child abuse hasn’t decreased – it’s just harder to see.
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“It’s just extremely concerning,” Fuller told the NBC10 Boston Investigators. “You worry about if they're eating. You worry about if they're in school. If they're going to their virtual medical appointments. The parents who have a significant history of substance abuse, the domestic violence cases. You worry daily about it.”
In the beginning of March, before school buildings were closed by an emergency order from the governor, DCF received around 2,000 reports of alleged abuse and neglect per week. Since then, the number of weekly reports has plummeted by more than 50 percent, reaching around 900 complaints per week by mid-April.
During that time, the stresses many families face have only increased. Many parents are helping their children with schoolwork, while also juggling a job, managing a tight budget or applying for unemployment.
And while the number of abuse reports is down, Fuller and other advocates say the types of abuse cases they do see are more severe. In cases where DCF might have been involved earlier, they’re now called after parents suffer a drug overdose, or children are treated in the hospital with physical trauma, Fuller said.
The majority of abuse or neglect complaints – some 80 percent – come from teachers, daycare workers and doctors, according to DCF data. They function as the eyes and ears of the state’s protective agencies.
But during the pandemic, it can be harder to see what’s going on at home, said Maria Mossaides, the state’s child advocate.
“Either the teachers witness things they don’t like to see, or children will disclose things that happened … particularly sexual abuse is disclosed to teachers all the time,” she said.
Mossaides functions as an independent watchdog, operating separately from DCF. She said the child welfare system faces an incredible challenge amid the pandemic. DCF’s 3,800 social workers need to keep themselves safe, along with the families they manage, so the majority of home visits are happening remotely.
Mossaides said the situation isn’t ideal, but social workers are trying to adapt. During video conference calls, they’re asking different questions, or asking the same questions in new ways, she said.
Home visits are also still taking place in serious incidents, or after DCF receives complaint sthat require deeper investigation. The state is also working to connect with kids and families who use any kind of state services to see if there’s a need they can fill before circumstances grow more dire.
“I’m concerned about communities who hesitate to reach out to commonwealth agencies,” Mossaides said. “Communities of color, communities that may be undocumented."
She implores anyone who has a concern about a child to call the state’s 211 hotline or to contact DCF directly.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” she said, “and we can’t protect children unless people come forward.”