CLAREMONT — With the closure of public schools and reduction in community services, state agencies have seen a concerning decline in child-abuse or neglect reports, according to family-services providers.
The New Hampshire Division of Child, Youth and Families (DCYF), a child-protection agency, has seen a statewide drop in reports concerning alleged child abuse or neglect since schools began their transition to remote learning on Monday, March 23, according to a local DCYF official.
“We’ve seen it both statewide and in our area,” said Nic Richard, assistant supervisor of the regional Department of Health and Human Service office in Claremont, which serves the communities in Sullivan and Grafton counties.
Schools have traditionally been the largest reporter of alleged child abuse or neglect, due to their level of interaction with children and families, Richard said. Family-assistance groups and police departments are also an important reporting-source, as they do a lot of face-to-face interaction with local families.
With the shift of education to online communication and the decline in face-to-face visits by community partners — including the police, who are trying to manage non-emergency calls by phone due to COVID-19 concerns — “all these [reporting] pieces are going away,” Richard said.
Potentially an educator, for example, might still report a concern based on something witnessed during a phone or video conversation with a child, according to Richard. That concern could include something overheard in the background of the meeting or the appearance of an unsafe environment.
But each school is operating its remote learning differently, Richard noted. With limitations in the quantity of daily interaction with students and the technology, it is more difficult to get a clear picture of what might be happening in the home.
DCYF follows-up on reports to determine the validity of the concern and whether the family needs assistance.
“Just because we show up doesn’t mean something is happening,” Richard said. “We want to make sure everything is going alright and to help families get what they need. It’s not our goal to disrupt or ruin lives.”
Case management is the only major role of DCYF, which includes meetings with families and providing assisting services such as counseling and family services. The needs vary on a case-by-case basis, but technology like online video chat and telephone meetings have replaced nearly all the face-to-face visitations.
“We’ve had to find creative ways to do the things we can do without imposing health risks to families. “Child safety is always our first concern, but we don’t want to impose a risk either.”
Some families do not have internet, or even adequate phone service, according to Richard. Some geographical sections of Sullivan and Grafton County still lack internet connectivity, for example. In homes lacking connectivity, DCYF might do a face-to-face visit if believing there’s an unsafe situation is occurring.
The one upside, according to Richards, has been an improvement by some families to participate in meetings with DCYF, because the families feel more comfortable communicating by phone or video than face-to-face.
“Everything has been an adjustment, but we’re all navigating through it,” Richards said,”It’s a tough time for all of us and we just have to work around that.”
Richards urged all communities to be attentive to families who may need support.
“Child safety is all our responsibility,” Richards said. “I’d like to encourage everyone to keep their eyes and ears open for everyone, children or adults, who need support because the help they need isn’t coming to them.”
DCYF may soon allow parents separated from their children to resume having facilitated family visits at TLC Family Resource Center, in Claremont, according to TLC Executive Director Maggie Monroe-Cassel.
TLC, a multi-service non-profit organization, partners with DCYF by providing facilitated visits between separated families and protective-programs such as parent support groups.
Monroe-Cassel said that DCYF hopes to resume the family visits at TLC next week, depending on the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Personal connection is the key to success for people, so it’s been a challenge to deliver that contact through technology,” Monroe-Cassel said.
TLC still uses video and phone technology to provide many of its services, and has employed video-conferencing to check in with families during New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order.
With the arrival of warmer weather, TLC hopes to hold its parent support meetings outside, where it is easier to accommodate social-distancing spacing.
Additionally, TLC’s Center for Recovery Resources, located on Pleasant Street, began hosting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in their building three weeks ago.
“There is a strict protocol in place, but people are hungry for in-person meetings,” Monroe-Cassel said. “A lot of people don’t like to wear the masks that we require of them, but that’s better than not getting together at all.”
Recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have had to transition their meetings to online formats like Zoom because the churches, which host the majority of their meetings, have closed.
Monroe-Cassel said that all attendees must wear a mask and maintain the six-foot separation from other participants. Additionally, only 10 people are allowed in each room. Because the meetings have been increasing in attendance, Monroe-Cassel said that the center will open other rooms in the center so the attendees can divide into smaller meeting groups.