Supporting vulnerable families during the COVID-19 pandemic

The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting marginalized families in multiple ways. From financial burdens, additional caregiving and teaching responsibilities, and little to no opportunity for respite, this is an extremely stressful time for parents, many of whom must now wear multiple hats simultaneously. Unemployment is at its highest since the Great Recession of 2008. There has been a dramatic increase in calls to the United Way’s resource referral helpline, 2-1-1, and a 30% increase in calls to the National Parental Help Hotline.

However, since the start of stay-at-home orders around the country, states are reporting a 33% to 70% dip in the number of hotline/child abuse reports. Canada is reporting a 25% to 45% decrease. One hypothesis as to why this is occurring is that children are no longer in contact with their teachers and other mandated reporters. While researchers initially posited that this could be likened to the “summer slump” seen when children are out of school for the summer, the two are not ultimately comparable, because the current numbers are much more extreme. The summer slump dip is usually a drop of 17%.

Unfortunately, a decrease in the number of abuse calls does not mean a decrease in the number of cases of abuse. In fact, the opposite is very possibly true. In national disasters, domestic violence cases increase dramatically, and this phenomenon is being reported during the COVID-19 pandemic, too. Given the knowledge that instances of child abuse is likely on the rise, the extreme reduction of child abuse reports during COVID-19 is especially important to note because the number of mandated reporters in recent years has increased. Furthermore, evidence shows that calls from mandated reporters are more likely to be substantiated.

Despite the continued need for child welfare workers, the child welfare system is also stressed by this public health crisis.  Investigators are not medically trained and do not have personal protective equipment (PPE), though some states are trying to get gloves. Many are afraid to continue their work out of fear of unknowingly infecting clients or bringing the virus back home to their families. State’s Department of Social Services offices do not have the capacity to quarantine children for 2+ weeks upon their entry into the foster care system, and many would-be foster parents are no longer taking in children out of fear of exposing their own children. Foster parents are also fearful of what to do if they, as resource providers, contract COVID-19.

In Missouri, when families must have contact with Department of Social Services representatives, the caseworker gives the family a phone call and asks if anyone has been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. If the answer is negative, the investigation continues like normal. If the family answers affirmatively, an EMS team is called who may be more likely to have PPE. Child protective work is already a stressful field with a high rate of turnover, and it would not be surprising to see an even higher rate of turnover during this unprecedented time.

Many of the services that are a part of foster care have transitioned to virtual processes, and the “digital divide” between families who do and do not have access to technology is increasingly noticeable. Monthly check-ins with foster youth and parents now happen via video conferencing platforms. Potential limitations of this are a lack of training in distance case management techniques for workers, developmental appropriateness for very young children, and lastly, youth may not feel as open to say what they would like if their foster parent is sitting next to them at the computer.

Supervised visitations with birth parents have also turned virtual. This is of course dependent on both foster and birth parents having access to video chatting technology as well as the foster parents’ willingness to supervise the conversation. A webinar hosted by the University of Toronto suggested that in order to protect a child’s psychological health, supervised visitations may have to be suspended during COVID-19 if the pandemic is affecting the birthparents’ mental health, as it may be jarring for the child to see their parent in a distressed manner. My initial thought is that taking away a parent’s ability to see their child, even virtually, would cause more distress. Parents are already under intense pressure to regain custody of their children. To base their right to visitation on their level of stress from the pandemic disproportionately affects those in positions of insecurity and with existing mental health conditions.

While the majority of families in poverty do not come into contact with child welfare systems, there is ample evidence that shows poverty and parental stress are associated with heightened rates of child maltreatment. This is an unusual time to say the least, and the effects of COVID-19 on the child welfare system are already taking hold. We must do what we can to help those who may be struggling financially, emotionally, or with illness to reduce stress and prevent any further trauma for children during this pandemic.  It is important that as friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, we check in on each other and keep the human connection alive. Social distancing does not mean that phone calls or emails or video chats or snail mail letters have to stop. We are lucky to live in a time where there are so many methods with which we can stay in touch in real time with relative ease.  Stay safe, and keep your communities safe.

How you can help

Individual level:

  • Check in on your neighbors through phone, email, regular mail
  • Create care packages with essential items
  • Stay educated on the pandemic via news stations, articles, and free webinars (while preserving your own mental health)

Community level:

  • Volunteer to be a remote phone operator at your local 2-1-1 to provide resources to families in need
  • Donate to a community organization that is providing extra meals to families who are now responsible for meals covered at school.

Policy level:

  • Advocate for more robust investing of service programs that help families
  • Advocate for the expansion of eligibility for Medicaid

Information from:
ISPCAN “Child Welfare and Pandemics: What We Know and What We Can Do” Webinar, April 3, 2020

“Coping with the Financial Reality of COVID-10” Webinar, April 9, 2020. Retrievable from

“Support for Kids, Families, and Providers during the COVID Crisis (Child Advocacy Day 2020)” Webinar, April 8, 2020

Implications of COVID-19 for Protecting Children and Supporting Families: Current Realities and Future Impacts, Melissa Jonson-Reid, PhD, April 9, 2020. Retrievable from


2 responses to “Supporting vulnerable families during the COVID-19 pandemic

  1. An excellent analysis. There are no easy answers. Thank you for bringing this important information to the public. We need to keep this out there during this crisis.


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