Featured Image: Voices for Georgia’s Children’s Executive Director Dr. Erica Fener Sitkoff visits with pre-k students during annual Georgia’s Pre-K Week

Protecting the vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis

By Dr. Erica Fener Sitkoff, Executive Director, Voices for Georgia’s Children 

Foreword by Andrea N. Smith, President, The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc.

DBHDD Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald

Since its inception 103 years ago, The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc. (JLA), has partnered with and advocated for children’s health and education. In the face of our current global pandemic, COVID-19, when things are so unsettled, it is easy to lose focus on those mistreated children whose trained eyes like teachers and educators are apt to recognize. JLA’s partnership with Voices for Georgia’s Children, a  nonprofit organization committed to policy and advocacy for Georgia’s children, has been pivotal in helping raise awareness and creating legislative change. Our decades-long partnership has focused on advocating for Georgia’s children through sharing key facts with lawmakers at legislative sessions and participating in the annual Georgia Pre-K Week at the Capitol. During these unprecedented times, it is more important than ever to stay hyper vigilant for our children – tomorrow’s next generation. Since April is National Child Abuse Month, we’ve asked Erika Sitkoff, Executive Director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, to pen this piece about Georgia’s vulnerable children – shedding light on the current situation and how we can be on the  front line to keep children safe and healthy. 

National Child Abuse Prevention Month –  is an annual event designed to raise awareness about the long-term impacts neglect and abuse can have on a child. But in this time of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and shelter-in-place orders, thousands of children in Georgia are facing heightened risk of harm. School closures seem to have made time stand still, leaving children and youth at home, away from friends and neighbors, and perhaps most importantly, away from the largest group of child abuse and neglect reporters: Teachers.

Director Tom Rawlings with the Division of Family and Children Services discusses the agency’s response to COVID-19 during Voices’ virtual Agency Town Hall GA-CALL

Since social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders were put in place, Georgia like other states have received fewer reports of suspected child abuse. Officials at the Division of Family and Children Services have noted that the number of incoming calls to child protective services have decreased by more than fifty percent.  That’s both understandable and concerning. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five child-maltreatment claims nationally are made by education personnel (teachers, administrators, school counselors, and other educational professionals). When children are no longer in the presence of such trained and watchful eyes, abuse and neglect can be hidden.

In 2018, according to Prevent Child Abuse Georgia, there were 11,455 confirmed victims of child maltreatment (neglect, psychological abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse) in Georgia. Young children who are not yet verbal, and children with disabilities, tend to be at greater risk. The rate of abuse for children ages 0 to 3 is three times the rate for children ages 16 to 17, according to Child Trends.

JLA President, Andrea N. Smith, and other JLA members join DECAL Commissioner Amy Jacobs and Dr. Erica Fener Sitkoff at the State Capitol for the Georgia Pre-K Week Launch event.

What’s more, we find ourselves in unchartered territory – with everyday struggles, financial and otherwise, being exacerbated. Increased parental stress, economic instability, housing insecurity, disrupted schedules, as well as lost or inconsistent health and mental health supports caused by the coronavirus pandemic leave children increasingly at risk for abuse and neglect. When caregivers resort to drugs, alcohol, or other precarious responses to fear and stress, children can be and often are left vulnerable. Consider this: according to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, the top three reasons for removing a child from a home in Georgia are neglect, substance/drug abuse, and inadequate housing. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has likely created the perfect storm.

JLA members including JLA President Andrea N. Smith pose for a photo at the State Capitol moments before the Georgia Pre-K Week Launch event.

So, how do we address our present crisis while also working to secure a long-term plan? How do we ensure our next generation of leaders — today’s children — are kept safe and healthy? Here’s a start: Check in virtually with family and neighbors; offer support (emotional and otherwise) to parents or caregivers; talk (and listen) to children and teenagers; share ideas and information to reduce stress or find help. A lot of those resources can be found on Voices’  COVID-19 Family and Community Resources webpage. To learn more about the state’s response to the pandemic and what policies and practices are changing to meet the needs of children and families, visit our COVID 19 Policy and Recommendations Dashboard.

If you suspect child abuse or neglect is occurring, please reach out to one of the following hotlines:

  • DFCS Child Protective Services

    • 1.855.GACHILD

    • Child abuse and/or neglect reports are taken 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

  • Texting services available

    • Child Help: 1-800-422-4453 (text or call available)

Senator P.K. Martin (Chairman of the Senate Education Committee) invited DECAL, Voices, and JLA President Andrea N. Smith to the Senate floor and shared facts about Georgia’s Pre-K Program
Senator P.K. Martin (Chairman of the Senate Education Committee) invited DECAL, Voices, and JLA President Andrea N. Smith to the Senate floor and shared facts about Georgia’s Pre-K Program

Through all of this, it is important to remember and remind each other that there is a future, and that perhaps with patience and empathy we may even be able to glean a few lessons about how to help families find strength in their communities and in themselves.  It is only with that knowledge that we can move forward while standing still and learn to be a stronger society that values its children and youth as much as it seeks to survive.

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