With kids at home for months, child abuse becomes hidden concern in Colorado

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AURORA | Keeping kids out of schools not only disrupts their education, it makes them ripe for suffering abuse, out of sight.

The pandemic is still limiting much interaction between kids and adults who normally watch for abuse and neglect. So when kids do go back to school, sports practices, therapy and the like, human service departments and foster parents expect a surge of child abuse reports and kids requiring a foster home or intervention.

It’s a tough reality human services officials say they are preparing for now.

Keyonia Edwards stands for a portrait in the backyard of her Aurora home. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Parents and children have grappled with a life confined to home for months now. Social distancing measures closed schools, canceled kid sport leagues took kids away from the careful watch of social service caseworkers and others back in March.

Closures amounted to shuttering hubs for kids to physically interact with teachers, therapists, clergy members, case workers, coaches and other “mandatory reporters” trained to watch for and required to report abuse and neglect. Child welfare administrators expect reports to accelerate in the fall when schools reopen.

Adding to the problem, the pandemic has also fomented conditions that typically surround child abuse and neglect: isolation and financial instability conducive to food insecurity, drug abuse, stress and chaos.

“It’s just not being reported,” Christa Jordan said of child welfare issues. She’s a supervisor connecting children with foster homes at A New World Child Placement Agency, located near the intersection of South Chambers Road and East Hampden Avenue.

She said her workload has plummeted during the pandemic because fewer and fewer children are entering the foster system.

Jordan is a foster parent, too. During the pandemic, she’s stayed at home with eight children – a mix of fostered, adopted and biological children.

“There’s a huge need,” Jordan said of area children.

Statewide, the Colorado Department of Human Services has seen about a 50 percent drop in hotline calls reporting child welfare issues since the pandemic shuttered public spaces.

“Those mandatory reporters just don’t have eyes on kids,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, DHS’ director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families.

It’s a fundamental problem facing departments and staff charged with providing children safe homes and a healthy future.

“It’s a scary time, not knowing what’s gonna happen,” said Aurora foster parent Keyonia Edwards. “People won’t admit this, but I know they’re scared about what they’re going to do with these kids,” she said of the system.

Edwards also has a bustling household mixed with biological and foster children under her care. And she knows intimately how children end up in a foster home. One child she encountered, 2 years old, was found wandering alone at 2 a.m. near Federal Boulevard in Denver.

The state DHS recently recognized Edwards as an exceptional foster parent. She’s also a bus driver for the Cherry Creek School District.

Despite the grim picture likely facing the foster system come fall, the pandemic has posed a slew of potential challenges that – so far – foster system workers say they have managed.

For one, Arapahoe County’s Department of Human Services says it has not seen a drop in foster parents coming forward to take children. There hasn’t been a problem yet finding foster homes for children removed from dangerous or neglecting families.

That was an early concern for Edwards and Jordan, who thought that families facing financial ruin and the prospect of exposing themselves to the virus would opt not to take on another child.

Colorado Department of Human Services leadership said the agency doesn’t have data on whether fewer foster parents are coming forward during the pandemic. Instead, fewer children were placed in congregate care settings, such as a group home, this April compared with April 2019, to reduce group exposures.

And both the state and Arapahoe County human service departments say children are still entering the system. Even if there are less of them.

For the time being, child welfare workers are donning personal protective equipment, entering homes and braving viral exposure to get eyes on kids as required by law. Some calls with foster families were replaced with virtual meetings.

But Jordan and Edwards still have major concerns for child welfare this summer.

Jordan said many group homes were already full of foster kids before the pandemic. Now, she’s heard that staff are scared to come in to work. She said it’s hard to work with kids while wearing a mask the entire work day.

And when children try escape from a foster home as a coping mechanism, she’s concerned they won’t have access to the tools they need to learn how to cope. Namely, she said therapy sessions are mostly continuing remotely.

“People don’t realize that kids are really at risk here,” Edwards said. “If we can go to the grocery store, these kids should be able to sit six feet apart from their therapist.”

And like most public services, human services have to cope with expected revenue cuts – either this year or down the road – brought on by the pandemic and depression-level economic conditions.

Officials said Arapahoe County human services have so far been protected from budget cuts.

Castillo Cohen said last month the state DHS was pondering different budget proposals and “looking at areas to reduce costs and have the least impact on kids and families.”

Before the expected surge of children entering the foster system or requiring government intervention into their homes, Castillo Cohen and others asked Aurorans to consider becoming foster parents.

Or, at the very least, to “trust their gut” and call human service departments when they see abuse and neglect in their communities. People with concerns should call 844-CO-4-KIDS.

-Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the statewide hotline to report childhood abuse and neglect.