Here’s how the child welfare system is usually instigated: concerned adults, people like teachers or medical providers, report suspected neglect or abuse. In Washington state, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) gets about 120,000 calls per year. DCYF looks deeper into about a third of those calls. 

The number of weekly calls that are screened in, or considered worth investigating, has dropped by about 50% recently because the coronavirus pandemic is preventing children from going to schools or some child care centers, places where people are mandated to report suspected maltreatment. From February until schools were closed in mid-March, DCYF received on average 992 calls per week. As soon as schools closed, the number dropped to about 500 per week and is still falling.

In a recent interview, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter said his agency is concerned about the issue because instances of abuse tend to increase during times of stress, like now. “It’s going to get worse … and that is going to put kids in some dangerous places, and we are worried about that.”

Signs of maltreatment include sudden changes in behavior or being overly watchful and wary, things that are often noticed through interactions over time. The department lists warning signs on its website.

Hunter spoke with The Seattle Times about how the pandemic is changing the entire child welfare system, from investigating reports to supporting children who are in state custody. His answers have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: How are you investigating the reports that you are getting? How has that changed?

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A: We’re trying to balance safety for our staff, safety for the families and public health with what’s the best way to keep kids healthy and safe. We are doing our initial investigation (into reports of suspected abuse or neglect) in person. 

Some states are going completely to video. I’m not excited about going completely to video. I don’t think that will work to do an investigation. 

Q: You’re doing extra things to make sure that there’s safety involved with these initial visits. What does that look like?

A: We have screening calls that we make to try and figure out, is there somebody obviously coughing? There’s a bunch of questions that we’ll ask.

Sometimes though, it’s a meth lab and we get a tip from the cops and we’re there at 2 o’clock in the morning. The coronavirus screening is probably sorta minimal here and they’re not likely to answer a lot of questions about, have they been coughing, right?

There’ll be all this cleaning protocol that our people will do there. We do have some personal protective equipment. 

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Court hearings to remove children are still happening, mostly by video.

Q: So talking about the kids who are already in foster care, what’s happening now at this point for visitations? 

A: For about 7,500 kids (in state custody), a court has typically ordered two visits a week, say do 50 weeks in the year. That’s three quarters of a million visits a year. Big number, right? So we have a public health problem. Every time you do a visit, the kid encounters about 10 additional people … So what we asked the governor to do was relax the requirement for physical visits.

We were concerned that we would lose 20 to 30% of our foster care base because foster parents were not accepting children back, or they were claiming that they were not going to accept children back, if visits continued. 

We’re getting all of our vendors to be able to orchestrate Zoom calls and we’re making technology available to foster families or birth families that need it in order to make visits possible. So we got an army of people sending different track phones and tablets and all kinds of stuff to get out to people to make this work and we’ll pay for service.

Q: What about infants?

A: I worry about infants, right? I don’t think it will work super well-to-do visits with infants on video. 

There are some things we’re finding with visits on video that are actually more positive than in-person visits. They happen more frequently. It’s much easier to make them happen. The kid doesn’t have to spend hours in the car. 

So there’s some pluses, there’s some minuses. We’re going to look at all those in another week or so. And say, all right, what modifications do we have to do to the initial switch that we did in order to deal with this crazy pandemic, and then what’s our plan? 

And we’re absolutely going to look at “what can we do about infants?” We still have the public health concern. We still have a concern that if I lose foster parents as a result of this, and that results in placement disruptions for children. That is much worse than having the visits be on video for most kids.

I actually can’t deliver most of these visits in person. All the fast food restaurants we would use are closed. Libraries are closed, playgrounds are closed. You just can’t have those gatherings of people. And these visits had to be supervised, most of them. 

It just isn’t practical in the middle of this pandemic. If this pandemic were to go on for six months, I would go figure out how to make it practical. And it will take months to make that work.

Correction: There was an error in the transcription of this interview. The original transcription said, “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video. They’re actually more positive…” The corrected version reads “There are some things we’re finding with visits on video that are actually more positive …”