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OPINION

At-risk children need more than virtual visits during the coronavirus pandemic

The risk of repeat maltreatment at home is higher today, with the near-universal closing of schools, widespread stay-at-home orders, and the related isolation of families.

Caution tape is seen wrapped around a playscape in Brookline to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Caution tape is seen wrapped around a playscape in Brookline to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The US Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that social workers need not see children being monitored in foster care in person, as required by federal law, but can instead use video conferences to reduce the risk of COVID-19. It’s more troubling that social workers are making increasing use of video conferences for children living with the parents who have subjected them to maltreatment, resulting in heightened danger for children.

The risk of repeat maltreatment at home is higher today, with the near-universal closing of schools, widespread stay-at-home orders, and the related isolation of families. Child abuse thrives in isolation and in the situations of financial and emotional stress that are part of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In-home visits would allow child welfare workers to identify signs of abuse or neglect.

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Homeschooling deprives children of one of their best protections against maltreatment: signs of abuse observed by teachers and other school personnel, who are mandated reporters and responsible for the largest number of reports to state departments of child protective services. Prior to this crisis, there was evidence that homeschooled children were at greater risk for abuse than children attending regular schools. For example, child abuse pediatricians published studies that show a high percentage of seriously abused children were homeschooled.

The evidence is accumulating that today’s COVID-19 crisis has resulted in heightened danger for children. There has been a substantial decrease in calls to child protection service hotlines across the nation. In New England, the calls have plummeted, falling by almost half virtually overnight, with the most dramatic decrease in Massachusetts, where the child protective system serves more than 80,000 children. Since Governor Baker closed Massachusetts schools, reports dropped by nearly 60 percent, with each week showing a decline. At the same time, officials believe that the stresses related to the pandemic, including unemployment and isolation, are likely increasing the risk for child maltreatment.

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For most young children isolated at home, social workers constitute their only chance for help, and an essential lifeline. In-home visits provide the opportunity to observe children face-to-face, check for injuries, interview them apart from their parents as needed and, if necessary, remove them from danger and place them in foster care. A social worker limited to video conferences will have no meaningful opportunity to check on a child’s safety. Parents can easily hide signs of abuse. Moreover, many families may lack the capacity to participate in a video conference.

Yes, these are extraordinary times, and many services have been shut down. But visits to at-risk children should be seen as essential services. Safety precautions could reduce risk. In many situations it might be appropriate, for example, to have parents bring children to the door, and to conduct interviews with parents and children at a safe distance. In situations presenting extreme health or safety risks, children could be removed temporarily for assessment.

In-person visits will probably present some risk to social workers. But doctors, nurses, paramedics, firemen, policemen, and others are daily risking their lives. They are responding to the ethics of their professional training and their perceived moral duty of care for others. Shouldn’t social workers operate consistent with a similar ethic of care?

All governors throughout the nation should insist that child protective services conduct in-person rather than virtual visits to protect children at risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Elizabeth Bartholet is a professor at Harvard Law School.