Summit County officials keep eyes on child welfare, adult protective services trends
A year since the pandemic began, Summit County Human Services Department officials are seeing contrasting trends for adult protection and child welfare reports.
Nicole Bortot, adult and family services program manager for the county, said that while reports made to Adult Protective Services have increased, child welfare referrals have remained low.
In 2019, the county received about 287 child welfare referrals over the year. In 2020, that number dropped to 142, Bortot said. The main reason for the drop has to do with children not being in school in person at the end of the 2019-20 school year, she said.
“When the stay-at-home order went into effect and all of our COVID restrictions, kids were no longer being seen on a regular basis by a trusted adult through the school system,” Bortot said.
The trend matches what was seen statewide. When schools went back in person in a hybrid model, with students at the schools at least two days a week, officials were worried that human services would see an influx of reports for child welfare.
That didn’t happen, Bortot said.
“I don’t know the exact reason,” she said. “I’m guessing it will have to do with the fact that it was a kind of rocky start to the school year anyway.”
While the department hasn’t been able to asses a trend for reports as a whole in 2021, Bortot did say the office is seeing many reports related to attendance and truancy. Most of the time, those reports don’t turn into actual child welfare cases as they have to do with a miscommunication between a student’s guardians and the school.
She added that the department doesn’t usually get involved in educational neglect issues if it’s the sole concern for a child. Typically, educational neglect reports will turn into a case if there are other signs of abuse and neglect outside of school, as well, she said.
“From our perspective, we’re trying to have so much grace and understanding for families this school year and lighten up around what we would typically consider neglectful or truancy,” she said.
For Bortot, there is still some concern that the lack of reports on child welfare means that some children are slipping through the cracks. It won’t be until school completely returns to normal that she expects to be fully capturing all of the necessary child welfare reports.
“The impacts of (schools being closed) are still unknown,” she said. “I still think that we probably missed something because we didn’t have mandated reporters in contact with kids in the way that they had been.”
While reports for child welfare have been on the decline, Bortot said the department has seen a large uptick in reports for Adult Protective Services.
In 2019, the department had four reports of adult protection issues. In 2020, that number jumped to 23, but only four of those 23 reports were considered to be actual cases.
For both child welfare and Adult Protective Services, it takes a long time for a report to turn into a case as there’s multiple levels of criteria that must be met. When you add the pandemic into the mix, it becomes even harder to determine when the department should intervene.
“The families are facing so many challenges these days,” Human Services Director Joanne Sprouse said. “They could be struggling financially. … They have children at home doing school. They’re trying to juggle all of these things. So it’s a lot of stress for the family.”
When it comes to adult protection, Bortot suspects that the jump in cases might have to do with increased education about the adult protection program. Over the past year, the department made a concerted effort to increase public education about the program and when to make a report.
She added that many of the reports had to do with drug and alcohol abuse, which has increased during the pandemic but is not something the department helps with.
“Adults have free will and can make decisions,” she said. “Sometimes, that gets confusing for people, and they get a little bit frustrated about why we can’t do more for adults.”
For a report to turn into a case, Bortot said adults must be considered at-risk, which is defined as people who could be susceptible to mistreatment or self-neglect because they are unable to perform or obtain services necessary for their health, safety or welfare, or because they lack sufficient understanding or the capacity to communicate decisions regarding themselves or their affairs. Those adults also must be experiencing neglect or abuse for it turn into a case.
In instances of child and adult welfare, the cases are handled on an individual basis, Bortot said. It takes about two months of assessments before a report turns into a case. During that process and after, officials work with families to give them resources.
“We are really trying to follow those processes and practices where we’re really engaging families and having a lot of transparency with them,” she said.
Anyone who is concerned about a child’s welfare can make a report by calling 844-264-5437. To make a report to Adult Protective Services, call 970-668-4030.
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