Looking at the total number of child abuse and neglect cases investigated in Wood County in 2020, the initial reaction is there was little impact from the coronavirus pandemic. There were 795 cases last year, compared to 811 in 2019. But, take a deeper dive, said Dave Wigent, director of Wood County Job and Family Service.
“As you would expect coronavirus had an impact on us. The month of April (2020) was very different from previous months,” he told the commissioners recently. Statewide, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, child abuse and neglect reporting was down 30% to 40%, he said.
“As I’ve said before, I do not believe that COVID cured child abuse,” Wigent said.
“What occurred was the reporters weren’t seeing the kids: School teachers, counselors, sports coaches, people that would normally phone reports to us. “There was an initial drop, but as the year progressed, they picked back up.”
Brandy Laux, assessment supervisor, said the department investigated 795 cases of child abuse and neglect last year, down 16 from 2019. In April 2020, there were 49 reports; there are typically 70-80 that month. In May there were 60, compared to 83 in 2019.
“Those two months probably hit us the worst,” Laux said. “School personnel are one of our biggest reporters. So, with school not being in, and when everything shut down, they weren’t even doing virtual so they weren’t seeing kids through Zoom or anything.”
Many of the new complaints from the fall were truancy related, children not attending or watching classes, she said. Out of the 795 cases, 400 were neglect, Laux said. Neglect means a lot of different things, she said.
There are a lot of categories, including supervision neglect. Complaints from the education community can include children not dressed for weather, asking for food, saying they are home alone and reporting that their parents are using drugs.
Sometimes people will report a child needs medical care or dental care if he can’t eat because of unhealthy teeth. Some children are victims of environmental neglect, smelling like pet feces and urine.
Laux said there’s sometimes a fine line. “Conditions of the home are big,” she said. “Just having your house dirty is not necessarily a threat to child safety,” Wigent added. “The public often wants to apply their own values and standards.”
Wigent added that Bowling Green State University once did a study with JFS on opioid abuse. His theory, Wigent said, was that parents would be more likely to abuse their children when doing drugs. “I was wrong. They were highly more likely to neglect,” he said. “Some of that is, you’re addicted, you spend a lot of time on the sofa, a lot of time chasing your drugs down and not caring for your children.”
In 2020, JFS also received an additional 858 calls that they did not investigate because they didn’t meet criteria to open. “That’s about average,” Laux said. “That screening percentage of half has been pretty consistent for our county for many years now,” Wigent said. “I’m very comfortable with how we do it here.”
He said there is a misconception that legal action is taken on a majority of cases. “We try to keep kids in the home as much as we can and divert as many as we can from the legal system,” Wigent said.
Laux said that 80-100 of the 795 cases went to court. “When you look at the 1,600 calls, it’s a very small percentage that end up in court,” Wigent said. “That is not the role of our agency,” he said of filing charges.
New, due to the pandemic, are family team meetings, which involve case workers, family members, family support and service providers. They started in September and 48 team meetings were done by December, about 10-15 a month.
“They seem to be beneficial in keeping everyone on the same page and making the family understand where our concerns are,” Laux said. The pandemic has also hit the JFS system and staff hard.
They continued to work face to face and with families, and some got sick. At one point, 20% of the investigative staff was quarantined. “We never stopped going out and doing all that when the world shut down,” Laux said. “We have to ensure child safety and you can’t do that over a Zoom call.”
Wigent said that JFS staff was not given prioritization for personal protective equipment or vaccinations. He added that locally, JFS is fully staffed and funded.
“We’re struggling with our partner agencies who have been greatly damaged by coronavirus. The recruitment and retention of staff in the mental health field is very difficult right now. And if they don’t have staff, they can’t service our kids. “We desperately need them,” Wigent said.