What COVID-19 Has to Do With the Rising Number of Kids in LA's Child Welfare System

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From teachers struggling to remotely ascertain whether a child is being abused, to shuttered courts prolonging cases, the coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on LA's child welfare system. (Getty Images)

In Los Angeles County, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has trickled down to some of the most vulnerable residents: kids in the child welfare system. The number of kids in the system rose dramatically during 2020, according to data released by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services. At the end of 2020, there were 3,535 more children in the system than in 2019, a spike of 10% over the previous year.

To put that increase in context, consider the numbers from the past five years: In 2015 there were 34,881 children in the system. That number crept upward most years, but never by more than a few hundred kids per year. An increase of 3,535 children for just a single year is significant.

DCFS officials were careful to say that spike in the number of kids in the system doesn't necessarily mean there has been a corresponding increase in child abuse or neglect over the last year. Instead they attribute the increase to many cases not closing due to the pandemic shuttering the courts, which led to an overall slowdown in the processing of cases.

Still, ascertaining if a child is being abused got infinitely harder after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

On a recent afternoon, a teacher who called the department’s Child Protection Hotline told social worker Katherine Rossi that during a Zoom class, she noticed one of her first graders had a black eye.

“Is this the first time you see something like this, or do you think it might be the way it looks on the screen?” Rossi asked the teacher. “Did [the child] share anything that may help in regards to figuring out if he did have a black eye or not?”

Rossi determined that the teacher should do more follow up with the child and his parents — there was just too little to go on from what the teacher reported. She then walked the teacher through how to follow up, also a tricky process in the virtual world.

DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said a teacher’s job of probing into the circumstances of a bruise is much harder over Zoom than simply being able to have a conversation with a child in the classroom. Over Zoom, teachers and social workers are “limited in what [they] can do because the child is at home ... And you never know who is just off-screen,” Cagle said.

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When shelter-in-place orders sent everyone home, calls to the hotline dropped dramatically. But as the year went on they crept back up, according to Carlos Torres, division chief of the Child Protection Hotline.

“Right now we're getting 600 calls and online reports a day. Whereas if it was not COVID, we probably would be getting between 750 and 850 a day,” Torres said.

Cagle also said the number of children removed from their parent(s) or guardian during 2020 due to suspected abuse or neglect showed a minimal increase from the year prior. “The removals actually did go up a little bit, but if you're looking at it percentage wise, we remained relatively constant,” Cagle said.

But shuttered courts have meant fewer open cases were closed and fewer adoptions were finalized in 2020. The net result was that many children who would have had their cases closed did not — and they remain in an already overburdened system.

Isolation for Kids and Parents — Swelling Caseloads for Lawyers

“The impact on the children has been significant,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which provides an attorney to every child who is removed from their parents due to issues of abuse or neglect. When the pandemic hit, in-person, supervised visits between those children and their parents were mostly stopped.

“There's been a significant decline in the amount of face-to-face contact that children are having with their parents, with their siblings, with their extended family,” Heimov said. “Ironically, a foster parent could make a decision to bring their foster child with them when they went to visit their own sister or their next-door neighbor, but the child and their own parents might have been prohibited from seeing each other.”

Even well-intentioned changes – like case extensions to help parents comply with court orders – have caused hardship, Heimov added.

“Giving a family an extra six months, a year down the road to reunify doesn't undo the damage that was perpetrated when they were physically separated from each other for three months, six months, nine months, however long it was that they weren't able to have that incredibly important face-to-face contact.”

Heimov also worries that the slowdown in the processing of cases may end up having a negative impact on some parents’ ability to reunite with their children at all.

“We know that there's been a significant increase in mental health distress throughout the whole country, so a parent who's already fragile or a child who's already fragile who has an interruption in their services or an interruption in their mental health treatment, that's compounded by the stress of the pandemic and by the separation," she said. "Then we may lose some parents who should have reunified and who were doing well, but this was just the straw that broke the camel's back."

A Year of COVID

The spike in children in the system has also caused swelling caseloads for the children's attorneys. “In January of 2020 we had 177 clients per attorney,” Heimov said. “We've gone from 177 children per lawyer to a high of 215... Having more clients reduces the amount of time that one can spend with each client."

An already overburdened system is now even more taxed, said Dennis Smeal, executive director of Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, a nonprofit organization of five law firms that represent most of the parents.

"Before COVID we had 22,000 parents that we represented," Smeal said. “By Dec. 31, we had 27,000, and that means that caseloads went up in some cases by 40%."

“The lawyers are suffering," he said, adding that his staff have been working extraordinary hours to meet the need.

Smeal does see some pandemic silver linings for families working to get their children back. He cites the new practice of filing paperwork electronically and the use of video conferencing to appear in court.

“It used to be if you were a long-haul truck driver you had to make the choice between losing income or appearing at your court hearings," Smeal said. "Now we have remote hearings that I hope we’ll be able to use whenever parents can't appear personally."

As social workers, court staff and attorneys are starting to get vaccinated, there may be more cases processed in the near future.

“There's going to be a big push to close as many cases as possible,” Smeal said. But until that happens, many children nearing reunification with their family will remain in foster care, a system at the brink.

Deepa Fernandes is an early childhood reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.