The coronavirus lockdown has made it more difficult for social workers in California to make in-person visits to vulnerable children, in some cases leaving them in abusive environments.
In Fresno County, almost one-third of child welfare workers took leaves of absences during the pandemic. Understaffing allowed twin infant boys to remain with their meth-addicted mother. The agency received hotline tips concerning the boys in February but did not take them out of the home. More than a month later, an employee noted their mother had posted about one of the boy’s death on Facebook. Only then did social services take custody of the surviving twin.
Experts warned early on in the pandemic that lockdowns could increase hidden child abuse and neglect because of isolation, added stress, and reduced contact with people who might spot the problems. Hotline tips fell by 50 percent in some California counties. Then it got worse. As the state’s child welfare offices closed and social workers began working from home, investigations stalled and crucial in-person visits plummeted, a New York Times investigation found.
Face-to-face observations help ensure safe home placements, but the Service Employees International Union successfully lobbied California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, to drop mandatory in-person visit requirements. The state Division of Children and Family Services deemed social workers essential, but many had trouble obtaining protective equipment to make in-person visits and had to work from home.
The change, which lasted three months, affected 60,000 foster children and 14,000 recently abused or neglected kids still living with their families. Many Los Angeles children at high risk for abuse went months without visits.
All of the changes added risks to a child welfare system already showing signs of brokenness. A troubling 2018 audit of Los Angeles County found children were in “unsafe and abusive situations for months longer than necessary” because investigations took too long. Auditors also said “safety and risk assessments were frequently inaccurate”—and that was after the county hired additional caseworkers.
In July, a judge dismissed charges against social workers accused of falsifying and mishandling evidence of abuse in the case of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend in 2013. Despite evidence of poor performance, a union agreement protected Fernandez’s caseworkers from criticism, suspension, and demotion once caseload caps were reached.
Southern California attorney Roger Booth has seen similar failures in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. He has sued social service agencies a dozen times or more on behalf of child victims and won $14 million in settlements against Riverside County. He filed a new lawsuit in July connected to the death of 8-year-old Noah McIntosh after multiple abuse complaints.
“What we’ve seen is circumstances where it seems the social worker is looking for an excuse to move on. Close the file. Be done with the situation,” Booth said. “That shouldn’t happen.”
Child welfare researcher Naomi Schaefer Riley said all states should consider child welfare investigators first responders and equip them appropriately. She also has argued that a cultural shift in social work through better training and different recruitment strategies would better protect children.
“I think they need to be trained much more like law enforcement,” Riley said, adding that abuse investigators need to know how to protect themselves from physical violence, assess evidence of risk, and recognize when they are being lied to. “We need to be recruiting people who want that job.”