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By Allison Gilbreath

The vulnerabilities of our children continue to be exacerbated by COVID-19. From school closures and economic hardships to social isolation and family confinement, the pandemic has added new stressors for families across Virginia.

And the reality is that we are just beginning to scratch the surface.

While most of our attention has been on flattening the curve and reopening the economy, we have yet to focus on the hidden impacts on children. The stay-at-home order aimed at stopping the spread of the virus means more time at home but could also mean more harm to a child.  

When there is a crisis, we rely on child welfare workers to step in and take immediate action. Many of the situations this workforce handles are dangerous and fully qualify as emergencies. Rarely do we see, or even think about, child welfare workers when we envision first responders, yet they protect one of the most vulnerable populations in our community. They, too, provide a critical service. 

The Department of Labor recently declaredchild welfare workers and service providers” on its list of emergency responders as needed for the response to COVID-19. But, Virginia has yet to adopt all the relief benefits for workers, such as paid leave and medical leave. Those benefits are desperately needed for workers due to physical risks and the need to balance caseloads as well as their own personal welfare.

In Virginia, according to the KIDS COUNT data center, there are nearly 5,000 children in foster care, with 500 aging out each year without being adopted or returning home. Due to the pandemic, we expect those numbers to rise, ultimately putting a greater strain on a system that is already at a breaking point in many places. 

This is a time of increased stress, and the pandemic has created conditions that will also increase the maltreatment of children. Many children have lost their social safety nets such as schools, churches and after-school activities. The Virginia Department of Social Services reports that calls to the Child Protective Services hotline have plummeted due to schools being closed and teachers not being able to report abuse or neglect.

Despite the obstacles presented by COVID-19, child welfare workers are still committed to finding new and existing arrangements to keep kids safe at home. However, they are overwhelmed. 

Caseworkers are required to use new technology systems to engage with youth, families and colleagues. Meetings, court proceedings, therapy programs and family visitations are taking place online. When in-person visits are necessary for especially at-risk children, caseworkers show up like other frontline workers in their personal protective equipment. The only part of the job that has stopped is the travel in between visits. In fact, child welfare workers are putting in more hours than ever before.

Prior to the pandemic, numerous child welfare workers in Virginia had caseloads that exceeded the recommended 15 children per worker. The greater number of children on a caseload decreases the chances for a child to find permanency. Nearly one-third of entry-level family services specialists exit within their first year, with smaller and rural agencies having an even more difficult time retaining workers.

Coupled with a starting base salary of $30,828, budget cuts and stressful environments, the state has struggled to retain qualified staff. Our foster care system is contingent upon having workers with access to the appropriate resources to effectively serve children. Children suffer the greatest from these deficiencies, which in turn furthers the trauma they have already experienced.

If we are requiring caseworkers to continue to provide an essential service to protect our children, then it is only fair that the public recognizes them the same way we lift up other first responders. Include child welfare workers when thanking first responders with cards and meals and consider becoming a foster parent yourself. They are often an invisible workforce who provide an invaluable service for children and families.

We have to get this right. Lives are at stake. As state and local officials determine the additional benefits and hazard pay differentials for essential personnel, we are asking them to consider child welfare workers receive these benefits too.

Allison Gilbreath is a policy analyst for foster care with Voices for Virginia’s Children, the commonwealth’s only independent, multi-issue child policy and advocacy organization. Voices is home to the KIDS COUNT data center for Virginia, which includes more than 200 state- and locality-level indicators on child well-being over time. Allison can be reached at [email protected]