Since March and the onset of COVID-19, domestic violence has been on the rise in the North Country and across the nation. That includes violence against children, and advocates are worried those numbers will only continue to rise. Jamie Basiliere is the executive director of the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country.
“We know that the issues of mental illness and family dysfunction, family violence have gone through the roof with the coronavirus. No one has their regular normal going on.”
It’s hard to get current numbers about child abuse and neglect due to confidentiality issues. But primary prevention programs can help paint a picture of what’s happening to the families they serve.
Child Protective Services is a reactive program - it investigates reports of child and abuse and neglect once they're filed.
A primary prevention program is preventative, with a goal of stopping child abuse before it ever happens, through the support of families that are considered "at-risk" for developing child abuse. Esther Piper directs the Healthy Familes NY office in Plattsburgh, and she describes their work as "matchmaking" between new parents and their baby.
"We help you find out how much your baby loves you, and how much you really love your baby. We are there before anything has ever happened to a child,” she said.
Her program is part of nationwide preventative program, called Healthy Families America. It uses home visits to educate and guide young parents through the first three to five years of a child's life.
In the North Country, we have Social Services and Child Protective Services in every county, but we have very few primary prevention programs. There's an Early Headstart program in Essex County that does preventative work, and the Healthy Families NY program in Plattsburgh, which serves Clinton and Franklin counties, and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe at Akwesasne.
Piper says that the coronavirus and everything that's come with it - shutdowns, economic downturn, schools and child care options closing - has changed their work and made it more urgent.
“That has been a big impact for us. The pandemic has been a thing that has brought consequences to our families.”
Healthy Families carefully tracks how home visits are spent, and what parents ask for help with. Normally, Piper says visits are focused on fostering the parent-child relationship. It can be as simple as teaching how to change a diaper, to helping parents understand what developmental stage their kid is in - how to talk to them, how to play with them.
But starting in April, they saw a huge shiftin what their over 100 families were requesting help in.
“Over 50% of our conversations are regarding family functioning right now.”
Family functioning covers topics like mental health issues, violence, family relations, and communication skills. Essentially, pleas for help on how to survive day-to-day as a family, during something as stressful as a global pandemic.
This is a big deal to Piper, because her program specifically supports families that are considered high-risk for child abuse: single parent families, younger families, those where parents require mental health or addiction services.
And Healthy Families is required to report to Child Protective Services if they observe abuse or neglect. Piper says in a normal year, her agency might file a single report to CPS.
“Once a year, one family. And sometimes we have gone for a period of over a year, and we don’t have to report any of our families.”
But since March 17, her agency has filed three child neglect and/or abuse report to CPS. Three reports in four months is more than what they’ve reported in the previous 2 years combined.Those reports led to the families being separated and the kids going into foster homes or to relatives.
This increase in child abuse cases Healthy Families is seeing matches a nationwide uptick in domestic abuse. Child welfare advocates, like Piper, worry that children are and will continue to be in harm’s way, as families struggle with living through the coronavirus pandemic.