As the depth and breadth of the current public health crisis began unfolding back in March, one of the earliest story lines to catch fire was how many abused and neglected children would go unnoticed, due to a lack of regular exposure to mandated reporters.

Stacy Schleif

Equally as compelling, and yet missing from the conversation, are the stories of the foster children who were immediately (and at the time, understandably) cut off from in-person visitation with their parents, and will likely be slower to reunify as a result.

Nonetheless, there are a number of steps we should be taking to better protect our community’s invisible children during this unprecedented time, especially as our state continues to implement measures to reopen.

Juvenile courts should reopen virtually for all proceedings. In many other states, accommodations have been put in place to conduct juvenile court hearings remotely: both telephonically and via videoconferencing.  For example, as of early May, every branch of the trial court in Massachusetts was hearing and deciding cases virtually, with a growing number of nonemergency matters on their dockets.  Connecticut’s judicial department is woefully behind.  In juvenile court, only emergency custody hearings and juvenile arrests have been scheduled by the court, while trials and other critical proceedings have largely been put on hold.  There have been no motions argued, no status conferences, and no reviews by the court.  There has been no public communication about concrete plans to virtually reopen.  Even as so-called “Priority 1” cases, custody hearings occur just one afternoon a week.  And given that these hearings are still being held in-person and in just one of the two juvenile courthouses still open around the state, attorneys and parents with compromised health, or who would have to travel, are largely disincentivized from requesting a hearing.  We must allow them to be visible.

DCF social workers should resume visiting children and families in person. Outside, socially distanced, and with masks on, if necessary.

DCF social workers, tasked with ensuring the safety of our most vulnerable children, have largely put a hold on meeting in-person with families in need of social services.  Currently, they do their best with virtual check-ins.  But with the sunshine upon us, families at home all day, and fewer cars on the roads, there is little reason that workers cannot begin to resume in-person visits.    Distanced.  Even with masks on, if necessary.

By way of example, when I went to visit a handful of the children I represent last week, the process could not have gone smoother.  More than one family mentioned that I was the first “live” face they’d seen in two months.  As the state starts to reopen, checking in on our state’s most vulnerable children and families should be a priority.  We must make them visible.

Children in foster care should be permitted to visit their parents in person.

As of mid-March, parents and children separated by the foster care system, who normally visited each on a regular basis, were largely barred from in-person contact, regardless of the child’s age.  DCF did a commendable job in immediately ensuring that parents and children were still able to see each other, albeit virtually.

If restaurants can make accommodations for outdoor seating, if camps can make plans to open, then we can certainly find ways for our children in foster care to resume in-person visitation with the people they love.

However, again, with better weather upon us, as well as with increased guidance about safety precautions that can be taken to minimize risk, it’s time for in-person visitation to resume.

Visiting over a screen is no substitute for the infants and toddlers I represent.  Our teenagers can be trusted to appropriately distance themselves from their parents as needed.

If restaurants can make accommodations for outdoor seating, if camps can make plans to open, then we can certainly find ways for our children in foster care to resume in-person visitation with the people they love.  We must allow them to be visible.

The hundreds of children “missing” from any contact with their school systems should be located.

Since schools transitioned to remote learning, there are children who have completely disappeared from any contact with their school, let alone from their online learning environment.  Community partners should be enlisted to check in on those children who have yet to surface online.

And to be clear, locating these children should not serve to report or punish parents, as there are admittedly many varied reasons why our children are not accessing their education via the current accommodations.  But if a student has yet to sign onto their distanced education platform, it is our basic responsibility to knock on their door and make sure they are at least okay.  We must make them visible.

School districts should ensure their teachers have weekly visual meetings with their students.

I have been beyond impressed with the level of engagement and feedback provided by my own children’s public school teachers.  So much so that the cynic in me has often been tempted to ask if they’ve been enlisted by the school district to surreptitiously assess my kids for signs of abuse or neglect.

They meet “in person,” over the screen, multiple times a week.  Art, gym, Spanish, and music teachers (both vocal and instrumental) are also holding class meets.  My youngest daughter’s preschool teachers have been coming to our backyard to read to her and play hide and seek – all socially distanced, of course – on a consistent basis.

And yet, many of our state’s most vulnerable children have not even had one such interaction.  I was appalled to learn that most of the general education children I represent have had zero “live” contact with their teachers during this time, even over a screen.  That all work has been conducted solely via posting assignments to Google Classroom, for first graders and high schoolers alike.  This is horrifying to think about – many of our children, whose parents are essential workers or otherwise overburdened, do not have the time, energy, or space to sit down with their children and instruct them regularly – and frankly, unacceptable.  We must make them visible.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, and we are slowly coming out of the communal shock that we were thrust into earlier this spring, we must do more.  As we realize that we can both start to re-open the state and simultaneously, that we must become accustomed to this socially distanced way of life for the foreseeable future, we must do better for our invisible kids.

Stacy Schleif is Senior Staff Attorney for the Center for Children’s Advocacy‘s Child Abuse Project.

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