For more than 50 years, Sue Hoyt, LSW, has been in the business of watching out for children. She started in 1966 in Missouri, working in adoption, foster care and intake in St. Louis’ Division of Children’s Services’ Homefindings unit.
“Human services was very different back then,” Hoyt said. “When I started, some of the laws hadn’t gone into effect regarding protection of children.”
Since 1978, Hoyt has focused her attention on Minnesota children, as an after-hours social worker in a number of Twin Cities social-service agencies. Since 2011, she’s been manager of Canvas Health’s emergency social service/child protection program, working with a team of social workers led by Child Protection Supervisors Tammy Kincaid and Sally Borich Altier, who respond to calls in Anoka and Scott Counties between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and 8 a.m. Monday-Friday and 24 hours a day weekends and holidays. “This work couldn’t be done without the expertise of child-protection on-call workers,” Hoyt said.
Of late, Hoyt has grown particularly concerned about the safety of children in these days of isolation. With schools operating online and afternoon programs canceled, kids have fewer concerned adults checking in on them. Without the watchful eyes of mandated reporters, signs of abuse and neglect may go unnoticed, she fears, and the psychological stressors of life in the pandemic could push parents or other adults over the edge.
“Even in families that normally might not have these kinds of issues,” Hoyt said, “when families are with each other constantly like we all are right now, tensions can really rise.”
Hoyt and I spoke over the phone recently about how societal stressors can take a toll on children’s safety, how a lack of in-person connection reduces child-welfare reports and the role that concerned adults can play in children’s lives.
MP: Reports of child abuse have decreased in Anoka and Scott counties since the state went into lockdown and all schools went online. An outsider might hear that as good news. Why is this a concern for you and your colleagues?
SH: Because the schools have been closed, because after-school activities are canceled, because churches aren’t having their youth groups, because children are not interacting with the community, kids are all at home under the exclusive care of their parents. Kids no longer have the eyes of those folks who used to see them on a weekly basis. Teachers and school staff, the lunchroom staff, the bus drivers, even the custodians and the paras and the aides know these children. They can see changes in them, see a bruise or even a change in behaviors, say a normally outgoing child becomes quiet or withdrawn. They can pick up on the cues of these kids.
These folks that see them on a regular basis are mandated reporters. When they aren’t in regular contact with kids, they aren’t able to report signs of abuse. Usually, if they have concerns, a mandated reporter can call the county and talk to a social worker, say something like, “I saw Molly today. I’m concerned about something she told me,” or, “I saw a new bruise on this child and I’m worried that something’s going on.”
MP: Teachers are still in contact with kids, at least virtually. Are you getting any reports from them?
SH: More than anything right now the kind of reports we are getting are educational neglect. Teachers are seeing that children are not logging on for school and they’re worried. They are calling us to report a concern, like “I haven’t seen Molly log on in a week.” That’s a hard situation for a teacher, when they don’t get to see the kids or their parents face to face. How do you check on that if the kid just kind of disappears from the internet? What if the parent doesn’t answer their phone? If the teacher truly has concerns, the only thing they can do is call the county.
Some kids are online with their teachers and they have been reporting to them that they are experiencing some physical abuse from their parents, that they are getting hit or assaulted. Parents are frustrated and the abusive behavior has escalated.
MP: Is there any way that the decrease in child-abuse reports has to do with families actually getting along better during quarantine?
SH: Personally I don’t think so. I would love to think that‘s what happening, that everyone is just joyful and playing board games and cooking lovely meals together. But this team that I‘ve got working with me would probably say that isn’t the case. With the added stressors of life right now, like people losing their jobs or thinking, “What is the world going to look like once we finally come out of our holes?” the overall stress level has to be going up in some families, especially when they are together 24/7.
As much as families like to be together, it is really healthy for everyone to have separate activities. I think it is important for children to have time with their friends and teachers or church or mosque or temple groups. They need time with those non-family folks, too.
MP: Are there other folks that you’re concerned about these days?
SH: I think that during this time it is important for all of the community to realize that there are people at risk, not just children, but also vulnerable adults with mental illness or physical disabilities.
This situation is unprecedented. It impacts everyone so differently, depending on who they are. It doesn’t impact some people that much. It doesn’t rattle their lives. But for other people, it is very problematic, very upsetting. It raises anxiety levels; it shows up in different behaviors like the use of chemicals and substance abuse. When frustration, fear and anxiety is up, the use of substances often rises. If substance use was one of the risk factors in that home before COVID, the risk of that use getting out of control is higher.
MP: Soon, schools will be closed for the summer. How do you think the situation will change in the coming months?
SH: Kids will be home; they’ll be playing in the neighborhood. With teachers not around, the remaining reports will come from concerned family members and neighbors. Summer programs are a good source of reports for kids: They’re staffed by great people. But many programs are canceled, at least for the first part of this summer. Until they are fully staffed again and kids are able to go back, we’ll be missing that key way of connecting.
And then there’s summer school. For many families, summer school has been wonderful. The kids are at school. They are safe. They are getting a meal. They are learning and catching up on their studies. It’s been wonderful for families in general. It has been a safe place for kids to be on many levels. It’s great to have that extra set of summer eyes.
MP: What can members of the general public do to help keep kids safe?
SH: Keep your eyes on kids. Say, as a neighbor, you see or suspect that maybe something isn’t right next door; keep your eyes open. You don’t want to be one of those neighbors who is always looking for the worst — you want to be a neighbor who cares about the kids that live next door, but you also want to care for their parents. If you truly do suspect that something isn’t right, a call to the county is your best bet. You’ll need to provide as much information during a call as you can, like the family’s address, how many kids you’re worried about and their general ages. If the worker taking the call assesses that this does rise to the level of concern, at the very least we can call law enforcement and ask them to do a welfare check.
It’s also important to mention that we’re not just talking about financially disadvantaged kids here. We’re also talking about families that don’t have as many financial difficulties, families who live in comfortable middle- or upper-middle-class neighborhoods. These kids are missing therapy appointments, their special ed classes. They are missing their sports stuff, all the activities that kids are used to participating in. These kids from more financially advantaged families are missing out on a lot of stuff, too. Normally the therapist or the coach or the music teacher has their eyes on these kids.
MP: What kind signs should raise an alarm?
SH: Strange cars in the driveway, children in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night, loud noises coming from the home, not seeing children outside for a long period of time. If there is a cause for concern, police can get themselves into the house, take a look and assess the situation.
MP: Walk me through what happens during an after-hours call.
SH: An after-hours call comes in through the answering service. It is directed to the on-call worker in whatever county is involved. We have two after-hours lead child-protection workers that alternate days. When the call comes in, the child-protection worker speaks directly with the caller. They run an assessment of the situation and decide what the response needs to be. If the child-protection worker sees there is enough cause to be concerned, a supervisor can check to see if the family has had previous encounters with child protection. They look for red flags, like, “Have the children been under child protection before?” “Do they have an open case?”
That worker then does an assessment and finds out the risk factors and the players involved. They then need to decide if this is a call that can wait to be reported the next working day or if it is a call that needs a response within 24 hours. In those cases, a social worker has to be out at the house and place eyes on the children, make sure they are safe and, if the child is not safe, form a safety plan so a determination can be made if the child is safe to stay there. If there is a need for an urgent response, the social worker has to go out to the house immediately. In those cases, sometimes it ends in out-of-home placement. If there is a trustworthy family member that can care for the child, the child will be taken there.
MP: What drew you to this after-hours work?
SH: I was working during the day as a substitute teacher. I had a young family at the time, so I worked nights, evenings and holidays after hours. I’d been in the military with my husband and wasn’t able to work in my field for a while. I wanted to get back into it.
MP: Have COVID-related restrictions changed the way you do your work?
SH: Not really. This stuff doesn’t stop with the pandemic. We’ve always worked out of our homes since our program’s inception. We’ve always been structured this way, so this stay-at-home order is nothing new to us. Each worker has been issued masks, gloves and sanitizer.
MP: You’ve been doing this kind of work for decades. What keeps you in the game?
SH: The challenge of after-hours work is it is so interesting, because when everything is closed you don’t have a lot of resources. You don’t have the support systems in place that are there during the daytime. You’re on your own, having to provide the services and make sure that you handle the case properly, that the child is protected and the case moves forward to the next working day. You are out there with the hospitals and the law enforcement people: It is kind of a skeleton crew.
The challenge is providing that good service quickly in real time. Nothing can really be delayed at night. You have to bring a situation to a good resolution before the end of your shift. You can’t let something hang and not be resolved, especially in the area of child protection.
MP: Sometimes people accuse child protection workers of breaking families apart. How do you respond to accusations like that?
SH: We only head out to a house to protect children. We want to find out if the child is safe right now, to ensure that the child will remain safe in the future. We are not there to break up families. We are there to help families find services so that they can maintain a healthy environment for everyone involved: Maybe they need extra counseling or financial guidance. I truly appreciate the importance of families and I want them to stay together as much as possible.
MP: Sounds like you think we’re living in tough times. Are you seeing any hopeful signs?
SH: Over the last 10 days, the number of reports to child protection have been picking up. People are starting to feel more comfortable reporting. It seems like we might be living in this more isolated way for a while, so the general public is starting to realize that they have to take some responsibility for kids. I have great faith in the human spirit and the resilience of humanity. I use the word concerned a lot these days, but I also use the word hopeful.