With classes done until at least September, kids in abusive households lose a safety net

March 30, 2020 12:01 am

Children play tag in a hallway at Fox Elementary School in Richmond, (Ned Oliver/ 2019 Virginia Mercury file photo)

Out for summer, out till fall.
We might not come back at all.
School’s out forever.
School’s out for summer.
School’s out with fever.
School’s out completely.

―Alice Cooper, “School’s Out,” 1973

When summers begin to fade into autumn, Andy Crawford knows it’s coming, just as sure as the first frost. They have a name for it in the social services profession, his line of work.

“We call it the October flood,” said Crawford, the director of social services for Bedford County.

He was referring to the seasonal jump at the start of each new school year in reports that educators file with Child Protective Services officials about students who returned from summer break showing signs of abuse and/or neglect at home.

Teachers report more cases of child abuse and neglect to authorities than any other segment of society.

Last week, in an unprecedented emergency order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Gov. Ralph Northam directed all schools to close for the final three months of this school year ahead of the three-month summer break. Though necessary to control the contagion, the closure broadens society’s blind spot to vulnerable and at-risk children from abusive households.

“During the summers, when everybody’s at home, the CPS calls decrease a little bit. When schools start every year, we give it a few weeks and the calls start coming,” said Crawford, who keeps his finger on the pulse of his profession statewide as the president of the Virginia League of Social Services Executives.

The coronavirus emergency is unlike any disaster in shuttering schools universally for so long a time. It injects additional emotional, economic and possibly medical aggravating factors into households where conflict and abuse fester in the best of times.

“This isn’t going to be like a blizzard or something. My fear is that if social distancing lasts for two or three or four months, I wonder what that is going to do with people confined at home together who already have trouble with their coping skills and mental health,” Crawford said.

School gives children a needed outlet for socializing and affords teachers, the best early-warning system for spotting abuse and neglect, a chance to identify actionable cases. It’s seven to eight hours – half their waking days – that are a safe respite from tragic or even dangerous home environments.

“They know what to look for. Teachers, coaches, counselors — they probably spend more hours around these kids day-to-day than anyone else and have trusted relationships with them,” said Janet Kelly, the president of Virginia Kids Belong, a nonprofit that works to expand the state’s foster and adoptive care network and ensure that children in imperiled circumstances find caring, loving homes. “It’s the No. 1 reason kids enter foster care.”

Janet Kelly, president of Virginia’s Kids Belong, talks to one of her employees at her office in Richmond. The organization is working to improve Virginia’s foster care system. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Hannah Pannell knows the terrain professionally, as a second-grade teacher in Ashland, and personally, as a foster mom. Though they foster no children now, she and her husband, Mechanicsville Church of Christ Pastor Will Pannell, have fostered at least 10 teens dating back to before they were married two years ago.

“Teachers are mandated reporters. This will be a huge loss of a safety net. Over the summers, they (children) stay connected through the YMCA and other programs. Now there are no childcare programs,” Hannah Pannell said. “We put a lot of safety nets under our kiddos, but those just aren’t available right now.”

After reports are filed and CPS agents remove children from home situations deemed abusive, some go to foster or respite care, some go to group homes and some are placed with relatives. The needs and challenges, however, don’t disappear once a child is moved. Caregivers and professionals say it’s tough on not just the children but on foster families as well. Even under normal times, half of foster families quit within one year.

Christy Parker, a foster and adoptive parent who has cared for 25 to 30 foster children in her Abingdon home since 2013, said the need for more vigilance and support is greater now that social distancing tempts families to retreat and look only after their own needs.

“When children aren’t in school, they’re often in more stress-filled and volatile places where people have lost jobs and there may be greater neglect and maybe substance abuse,” she said. “Where parents are still going to work and they are leaving children with neighbors or family members, they may be placing them in a situation where there is physical, emotional or sexual abuse.”

Parker once fostered an 8-year-old boy who had escaped from an abusive family living in a hotel room and took shelter in the doghouse of a home in a nearby neighborhood. He was subsisting on dog food when he was found and ultimately entrusted into Parker’s care.

“We need to be more vigilant for children in our own neighborhoods and, when we see a child not being cared for, reach out to either provide wraparound support to that family or report them,” she said.

The transition is evolving with the imperative to self-isolate. Teachers are making use of video conferencing tools to check in on children whom they still consider students.

And teachers find ways to connect with their pupils from a safe distance if only to say farewell until next fall. Last week, Crawford spoke to me by phone as he and his daughter waited on their front lawn for a lengthy car caravan of her teachers to course through their neighborhood, bidding them adieu for the summer.

Social services and health care professionals are adapting videoconferencing to check in on children and families in foster arrangements, providing evaluative and instructional services virtually, Parker said.

Kelly and VKB are asking volunteers to contribute toys, books, games, snacks — “anything that your own kids would want” — for Foster Care Survival Kits intended to give children and their caregivers a break.

Classrooms may be dark and empty, Hannah Pannell said, but teachers don’t just forget their students.

“In September, we will see a tremendous amount of cases,” she said. “But until then, it’s just a matter of coming into contact with people who can be a safety net for these kids.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]