Georgia’s child welfare employees continue work in face of coronavirus

The director of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, Tom Rawlings, said caseworkers in his agency, despite the coronavirus, are still going into the field in response to calls alleging abuse or neglect of a child. “We all need to think about how do you balance that need to keep children safe while promoting as much social distance as possible?” he said. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

A week after Gov. Brian Kemp encouraged all state employees who could to work from home to stem the spread of coronavirus, staffers who work to make sure Georgia’s children are safe from abuse and neglect continue to head into the field.

And with all the state’s public school students home and away from staff who are legally obligated to report suspected abuse, Division of Family and Children Services officials are calling on the general public to ensure that children are safe at home. State law mandates certain people who come in contact with children, including school staff members, notify authorities when abuse is suspected.

DFCS Director Tom Rawlings said the division was sending a dual message to the public and its employees: While ensuring the safety of children is essential work, they must do all they can to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We recognize that for our staff, for their families, for our foster parents and for our children in foster care this is a scary time,” Rawlings said. “We all need to think about how do you balance that need to keep children safe while promoting as much social distance as possible?”

Division employees who can telework — such as staff handling benefit enrollment, supervisors and some caseworkers — are doing so, but there are instances when it’s necessary to go into the field.

“We are mandated by law to investigate reports of abuse and neglect,” said Chris Hemphling, DFCS’ deputy division director and general counsel. “And even during a worldwide pandemic, abuse and neglect doesn’t stop.”

DFCS officials declined to say how many of its 7,000 employees have had to visit homes to do their jobs.

The division began practicing social distancing on Saturday, and as of Wednesday, 587 cases of suspected abuse and neglect have been reported and assigned to caseworkers.

Rawlings said he was concerned about a drop in reports of suspected abuse. There were 972 reported cases during the same time period the previous week.

Workers who must go into the field are taking steps to ensure their safety.

“When we get a hotline call for a suspected case of child abuse or neglect, we ask if anyone in the home is ill,” Rawlings said. “We’re going out, but we (collect information) while maintaining that 6-foot distance between our workers and the family to the extent that’s possible.”

The federal government approved the use of video conferencing for things such as routine meetings with caseworkers or to allow children in foster care to communicate with their parents.

A global pandemic and possible financial strain could put additional pressure on a parent who is prone to abuse.

“Because students are out of school and many of these after-school programs have been canceled, children’s neighbors take up that role a bit more,” Rawlings said. “If people do see something that doesn’t look right, we really want to ask them to please follow up with us.”

To report suspected child abuse or neglect, call 855-422-4453.

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