Online schooling changes approach to protecting children

WILMINGTON — Patricia Dailey Lewis, Esq., the executive director of the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, remembers knowing that there would be an impact to child protection, and the safety of children, when school buildings were closed in March.

“We knew that when teachers went immediately into quarantine, and children had no school, when families were starting to enter into a time of very high stress and difficult circumstances from a financial point, food insecurity, emotional problems — this is going to be a problem,” she said.

“And we knew that, because teachers, doctors, nurses — people that see kids regularly — are the number one reporters of child abuse, there was going to be a significant issue for our services.”

Immediately, they began creating a resource, Virtual Learning Environment, to deliver training to teachers and youth-serving professionals on how to support children and families during this time, and what their legal obligations were around reporting child abuse and neglect.

Over the last several months, they have trained thousands of educators and professionals from across the country in virtual interaction, she said.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Division of Family Services has seen an overall decrease in calls to the hotline (1-800-292-9582), but numbers are starting to tick up.

“Compared to where we were in the beginning stages of the pandemic, we have seen an increase to calls to our hotline,” said Trenee Parker, director of DFS. “The increase is not the same that we have seen in prior years.”

Looking at August and September 2019 in comparison to August and September 2020, there has been a 20% drop in calls. In April and May, however, DFS was seeing a 30 to 40% reduction at the hotline.

Generally, DFS has returned some of its processes to traditional models while still following protocols from the Division of Public Health. Staff is having “face-to-face contact with most of our families and most of our youth that are in foster care but when we need to, we are utilizing virtual contact,” Ms. Parker said.

But the past several months have required shifting to address the online medium that educators, families and children are facing.

“One of the things that I think we have been able to build on at this point, with months of getting used to this, is doing things to help reporters to be better prepared to highlight concerns that would result in a call to the hotline,” she said.

Working closely with the Beau Biden Foundation, along with the Office of the Child Advocate and Prevent Child Abuse Delaware, they have sought to give resources to educators to be better prepared.

They plan to host a Q&A with Ms. Parker’s staff and educators to “help them feel better supported in that, to be able to make calls to the hotline and know what to look for.”

“I think our focus in the past was really the same thing. It was just, ‘What to see when a child comes into your classroom’ and now we’re doing that ‘when your classroom is a Zoom room,’” she said. “So we’re just trying to adapt to the needs the pandemic has placed on all of us. So it’s just a little bit of a shift in our work.”

With children more online now than before, Ms. Lewis said the foundation has a number of training sessions, dealing with cyberbullying, sexual grooming so people can understand “what the dangers are to our children; 500,000 predators are online at any given time,” she said, adding that there has been a “drop in ages of children producing pornographic images of themselves.” Approximately 9 years old is the “new norm” she said.

She added that a vast number of children in Delaware don’t have internet access and that it’s “incumbent upon adults to make sure children have the tools they need” but it’s also vital parents and teachers understand the risks.

“Your teachers shouldn’t be sending private messages to children, your mentors should not be having private, uninterruptible, unobservable sessions with children,” she said. “And yet, I think that still families do not understand the dangers to their children in the circumstance where a child is left in a situation that is uninterruptible and unobservable. I don’t think that most educators do that willfully. I think it’s just a habit that people have gotten into.”

Texting privately between children and adults — be that coaches or teachers — is a concern.

“We would never expect our kids to be in school in a closet with the door closed, with nobody able to see in, with an adult,” she said. “Yet, we don’t have a problem with it in the virtual world. And it’s much more dangerous in the virtual world.”

The foundation has been working with organizations like the Police Athletic League, Division of Family Services, the Department of Education, the Delaware State Education Association and Big Brothers-Big Sisters to help put tools into the hands of those who can report abuse.

“These are all places our kids are going more and more and places that can really make sure our kids are protected because once they get on that computer, I think a lot of parents are like, ‘Good, they’re in school, they’re safe,’” she said.

Beyond the virtual environment, the foundation is beginning another training session on children emerging from trauma because, as different facilities reopen or schools open for somewhat in-person learning, children are returning to the world traumatized.

“They have been traumatized by the pandemic, by the circumstances around them. Some of them have been subjected to food insecurity, to domestic violence. They have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse,” she said.

“We are focusing on making sure that mandatory reporters know their obligation and they know what to report and that we start to get ready to help children that have been subjected to a historic level of stress.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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