Child abuse cases and COVID impact take spotlight for lawmakers

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – During the summer, lawmakers on the Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee expressed concern over reported incidences of child abuse and child abuse court cases.

Wednesday, the committee received an update on both.

According to Kentucky Court of Justice data, in March 2019, 2,191 dependency, neglect and abuse cases were filed in Kentucky courts and 2,002 were filed in April 2019. In March 2020 and April 2020, 1,476 and 903 cases were filed, respectively.

Marcus Vanover, a family court judge in Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastlecounties, shared with lawmakers that although COVID-19 safety protocols have changed how court operates, courts did not close.

“The judicial centers continued to allow physical access for those that were seeking emergency orders for domestic violence, dating violence and child welfare,” Vanover said. “… Our courts scrambled to learn how to do hearings remotely, however, child welfare cases have been held even on the first day of COVID limitations.”

Vanover also told lawmakers child welfare cases have remained a priority for courts across the state.

After the presentation, Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, asked if the pandemic is the reason why the amount of court cases filed in March and April dropped this year.

“Frankly, with children having to stay at home, there just were fewer eyes on them that would be reporting potential abuse or neglect,” Vanover said, adding he believes the COVID-19 pandemic is a contributing factor to the lower amount of cases filed in March and April 2020.

Bechler responded by saying he believes this data is an argument to open schools back up since so many reported incidences of suspected abuse comes from teachers and daycare workers.

In response to Bechler’s comment, Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, said he does not believe it is wise for children to return to schools due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the state.

Committee co-chair Rep. David Meade, R-Stanford, also weighed in on the issue.

“That is an issue that there are several varying opinions on,” he said. “I appreciate each and every person’s opinion… I do think, however, as we just saw with these slides with the dependency, neglect and abuse cases that are filed going down… there are sometimes things worse than this virus for children.”

Although COVID-19 has had an impact on child welfare, the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) testified that staff is still working to assess for the safety, risks, and the needs of the families they serve. Video conferencing has been utilized and in-person visitation has been permitted if needed, according to the presentation.

DCBS Division of Protection and Permanency Director Christa Bell said that at the beginning of the pandemic, there were concerns on how that would impact foster family availability.

“We were very pleasantly surprised that nearly all foster families surveyed were willing to accept more children and even more than half of the families surveyed were willing to accept children that had potentially been COVID exposed or COVID positive,” Bell said.

Bell also testified that the amount of intakes of children during the summer months was close to how it usually is during a normal, COVID-19-free year.

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