TAMPA — The end of the school year normally is the peak season for child welfare investigators, with teachers anxious about children they won’t see over the summer reporting their concerns to Florida’s abuse hotline.
But with schools still closed because of the coronavirus, the number of abuse reports across Florida in April plummeted to about 19,000, a 40 percent drop compared with the same month last year.
The number of calls to the abuse hotline started falling in March, when most schools first closed their doors. But April provided the first full month of data to measure the impact of teachers no longer seeing their students every weekday. Teachers are classified by the state as mandatory reporters of abuse and neglect, and they are among the most frequent callers to the hotline.
The same trend held locally, too, with 30 percent fewer reports made in Hillsborough and a 33 percent drop in Pinellas and Pasco counties, classified as one child welfare district.
Fewer Florida children were moved into foster care, too. Just over 950 were placed either with relatives or foster parents in April, compared with 1,265 in the same period last year. That number could drop even further, since there is usually a month or more of lag time between a report and a removal.
The result has been a drop in reports and removals, which has eased the strain on foster care systems. No Hillsborough child protective investigator has a caseload of more than 15 for the first time in recent memory, said Jennifer Hock, Child Protective Program coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. And workloads also are down for case managers who supervise the progress of children through foster care.
Still, the drop in abuse reports likely is a mixed blessing, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.
Fewer investigations likely will mean that more children who might have been unnecessarily removed from their homes will remain with their families, she said. But there remains a concern that the closure of schools has left children more isolated and at risk of harm.
“For the kids who are being abused and neglected and need state intervention, and those calls are not coming in, it’s bad,” Rosenberg said.
The drop in removals has been a respite for Eckerd Kids, the lead foster care agency in both the Pinellas-Pasco district and in Hillsborough. The two circuits rank first and second in the state for the number of children placed with relatives or in foster homes, creating a huge burden on their foster care system.
Over the past four years, Hillsborough County has struggled to find a home for teens who refused to go to foster homes and some ended up sleeping in unlicensed offices. The Pinellas-Pasco district has struggled to hire and retain case managers, increasing the workload for those who remain.
Since the pandemic, the average number of children supervised by case managers in Hillsborough has dropped to 15 from 20, meaning they have more time to work with parents and foster parents.
An even bigger time saving for case managers has come from changes to court hearings enforced by social-distancing rules. Before the pandemic, there were about 2,500 hearings a month in Hillsborough. That number has been cut by about 30 percent, and the hearings that remain can be attended by video conference.
“They don’t have to drive to court, park and sit and wait for their hearings with limited access to do their work,” said Chris Card, Eckerd Connects’ chief of community-based care.
Still, Card acknowledged that his agency still has much to do. Only about 60 percent of case manager positions are filled in Hillsborough and 74 percent of positions in the Pinellas-Pasco district.
It means that too many case managers still are juggling caseloads of more than 30. About 25 people are in training across the two districts.
“We want everybody to be at 15,” Card said. “It will take some time to get us there.”
Experts say it is unclear whether the number of abuse reports will rebound as Florida reopens. Schools are not slated to open until at least the new academic year in August.
But the effects of the pandemic likely will be felt long-term, said Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami.
A significant fall in the number of children in care would raise questions about funding for local foster care agencies and would come as state lawmakers grapple with falling sales tax revenue. Children on average spend about 18 months in foster care.
“The kids that don’t come into the system right now will have a two-year impact,” Latham said. “How that affect budgets and planning will be incredibly interesting to watch.”
This story is part of a collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.