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‘Scary To Think About’: Concern About Unseen Children, Abuse During Pandemic

A woman standing outside a tan building.
Elodie Reed
Ashley Smith stands for a portrait outside the child advocacy center in St. Albans, where she's an investigative social worker for the Department for Children and Families. DCF and its mandated reporters are concerned about the kids they're not seeing.

Over the past three months, calls to Vermont’s child protection line have gone down by about half, according to the Department for Children and Families. But this doesn’t mean there are fewer instances of child abuse and neglect. DCF says the opposite may be true.

And DCF workers and educators say they’re concerned about the kids they haven’t been seeing.

Like a lot of people, Katie Colligan has been mostly working from home since the middle of March.

Colligan works for DCF's Middlebury District. She usually conducts investigations in the field, but right now, she’s not knocking on anyone’s door unless a report is urgent. And Colligan says she’s missing the person-to-person rapport.

“What’s been interesting, I have to say, is having court hearings in my kitchen,” she said. “That has been hard.”

One of the things that's most difficult for Colligan is thinking about the kids she isn't meeting.

“It makes us just worry, what are we missing, what’s happening, and we can’t help,” she said. “And that’s kind of scary to think about, sometimes.”

"It makes us just worry, what are we missing, what's happening, and we can't help. And that's kind of scary to think about, sometimes." — Katie Colligan, DCF Middlebury District

According to data provided by DCF, the department received nearly 2,500 reports of abuse or neglect between mid-March, when Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency for COVID-19, and the end of May. That’s about half the calls in the same period last year.

Most of those calls don’t include a “valid allegation of abuse or neglect” under Vermont law: 619 were accepted for further investigation by DCF in the last three months. Again, that's about half the number from last year. 

DCF deputy commissioner Christine Johnson says the drop in calls to the child protection line does not necessarily indicate a decline in instances of child abuse in Vermont. 

“Our concerns are that child abuse could be on the rise, even though the calls have gone down,” she said. “The call volume is no indication that there is less child abuse going on.” 

On mobile? Click here to see infographic.

According to DCF,around 80% of the calls that usually come into the child protection lineare from mandated reporters, like health care providers, teachers, and child care workers. Since the stay-at-home order, kids haven’t been in as much contact with those people. 

“Schools really are a safe place for kids, it's where they get a lot of their needs met,” said Hardwick Elementary School principal Patrick Pennock. “We provide three meals for them, at Hardwick, we have a therapist, a school clinician from the mental health agency that works with a lot of our kids, and also our guidance counselor. The teachers form those safe adult relationships, and now that’s all gone remote.”

Pennock has been working remotely, too. He says he misses seeing the kids — if he was having a tough day, he’d go visit the kindergarteners.

“And they would always be happy to see me, 'Hi Mr. Pennock!' and I'd kind of work with them a little bit, and that would be energizing," he said. "So now I can do that by popping into a Google Meet, but clearly it's not the same level of regeneration as you would get in-person."

Pennock says the teachers and staff at Hardwick Elementary are checking in with kids, and his district is working to support the mental health of parents, teachers and students.

"The teachers form those safe adult relationships, and now that's all gone remote." ?— Patrick Pennock, Hardwick Elementary School principal

“We are mandated reporters of course, and so we're trained, if there's anything that we hear or see that might indicate, that we could suspect could be some kind of neglect or abuse, we are mandated to report it,” he said.

But during a digital meeting, it can be hard to see things like physical signs of abuse or a change in attitude. There are also fewer opportunities for teachers and students to talk privately — an adult might be in the room, just off-camera.

And quarantining at home comes with its own stresses. One of Alburgh foster parent Crystal Luciano’s four kids joined the household just a few weeks ago. Staying at home with his biological family didn’t go so well. 

“He was the only kiddo there, so he was probably really bored, and it just got to an escalated point,” Luciano said. “I guess they are not able to have a relationship with him anymore.”

That’s just one example of a situation where an in-person intervention was necessary. For DCF investigative social worker Ashley Smith, face-to-face work hasn’t stopped. She still reports for work three or four times a week at the child advocacy center in St. Albans, where she conducts interviews. But work looks different.

“We’re still maintaining the six feet apart social distancing,” Smith said. “And we leave some masks out for them, if they don't have any."

The room where Smith talks with kids about sexual or serious physical abuse is sparse these days: three spaced-out chairs, a couple cow paintings, a wall quilt, a plant and an empty shelf. All the books and art supplies are gone, and so are the kid-sized table and chairs.

A room with three chairs, two cow paintings and a small side table.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The interview room within the child advocacy center in St. Albans, which is rather sparse these days due to COVID-19.

“It can be more challenging for them if they’re already anxious, and there’s strangers they’re meeting for the first time to talk about something really intimate,” Smith said. “And they can’t see our faces, because we’re wearing masks.”

Smith says she was anxious the first time she had to do an interview in these circumstances.  But then she says what happened is what always happens: She built rapport with the child, and everything else — the distance, the masks, the pandemic — just fell away. 

“You know, all along this child is just so happy to meet with somebody and get this load off their chest,” Smith said.

As for the kids DCF isn’t interviewing, Zooming or placing in foster homes, staff and caseworkers hope the adults in their lives are watching, and if they see something wrong, making a report.

Correction 9:25 a.m. 6/12/2020: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect title for Katie Colligan, who is an investigator, not a caseworker.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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