In many counties, those monthly, in-person visits have given way to weekly telephone calls that are partly designed to help make sure all households are aware of the various charity services that have been established to make sure pantries and refrigerators are full, new parents have access to diapers, or that kids who are ill are getting the proper medical care.
“We need to make sure we’re helping them get the services they need,” said Crystal Natan, who heads the Lancaster County Office of Children and Families. Natan estimated that in-home visits have dropped by 20 to 25 percent from the beginning of March across Lancaster, one of Pennsylvania’s most populous counties.
Liddle said anecdotal reports she’s heard about virtual visitations and other alternative approaches have been good.
“The providers I’ve heard from said they’ve had some of the best family visits they’ve ever seen,” Liddle said. “Everybody was home, and there was great interaction with the kids.”
At the state level, criminal background checks for aspiring teachers, would-be field trip chaperones and youth sports coaches and Sunday School teachers are also moving forward. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation fingerprint checks aren’t happening – the state’s third-party vendor that collects the prints here has closed most of its offices due to the virus.
The state Department of Human Services, which oversees the background check system, is still trying to figure out an appropriate work-around for that, though it appears that one potential solution – a blanket waiver of the federal fingerprint check – has already been ruled out.
“They’ve tried to keep many parts of the system running, so there’s not going to be a backlog,” Liddle said.
Everyone remains a little worried about what they can’t see and don’t know, however.
Counties checked for this story all reported a dip in new case referrals as the coronavirus pandemic and its hold on ordinary life here strengthened through March.
And statewide, there is at least early indicator of a fall-off in referrals.
State Department of Human Services Secretary Erin James said calls to ChildLine from Feb 11 to 17 were 4,121. From March 11-17, the most recent week from which numbers were available ,the call volume had fallen by more than 20 percent, to 3,284.
“As we enter April and Child Abuse Prevention Month we know that it is hard to talk prevention when for so many families in isolation it is literally holding on for dear life to just get through the day,” said Palm, founder of the Berks County-based Center for Children’s Justice.
“Families already under economic pressure may now be in more of a pressure cooker with the economic pressure from job loss mounting and then parents and caregivers turning to increased substance use and any abuse – child or domestic – that was already a factor in the family likely to be accentuated all the while the services, systems, people, including extended family, that can sometimes provide the reality check or the safety valve are isolated from direct contact from the child and family.”
Liddle said the best way to counteract that gap is to use the upcoming platform to remind everyone to be vigilant, especially those who aren’t necessarily mandated to file a report but who may be the only one in a position to do so.
“The best you can hope for is maybe the eyes of a community member,” Liddle said.
But as a longtime advocate of what the Family Support Alliance calls the “Front Porch Project,” which encourages community-wide engagement against child abuse, Liddle also said this is also a great time for neighbors to check in on neighbors, see if they could use a delivery of groceries, or just to say ‘Hi.’
If you are part of, or you know a family that is under special stress right now, some prime resources for parents seeking advice or help in Pennsylvania include:
- The United Way of Pennsylvania recently opened a special help line that residents can access by texting their postal ZIP code to 898-211 for live help. Pennsylvanians can also dial 211 on their land line or mobile phone to be connected to a resource navigator.
- Grandparents or other family members raising children, meanwhile, can seek help through the state’s KinConnector Helpline by calling 1-866-546-2111. Assistance is available Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- PA’s Promise for Children – https://papromiseforchildren.com/get-a-little-help/
- Tri-County Community Action Agency / Dauphin County Family Center (serving Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties), at 717-232-9757 or https://cactricounty.org/our-programs/family-center/
“We should be making sure every parent understands it’s OK to not be OK, and to ask for help if you need help,” Palm said.