GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The COVID-19 pandemic changed so many things like government agencies and services they provide, including the child welfare system.

The way the system had worked previously was reactive. Students spend time in school, they’re watched by adults, adults call in to Child Protective Services if they notice incidents of abuse or neglect.

With children no longer in schools and with returning to class in the fall in question, they’ve pivoted from reactive to proactive.

But the switch, as the Executive Director of the Children’s Services Agency JooYeun Chang explains, has been a few years in the making. 

“I think we were really lucky because this is something that we chose to do because the federal government changed its laws a couple of years ago to say that the whole country needed to look at the system differently and they promised to provide financial assistance to do exactly that. So, we’ve spent the last year of looking at data,” Chang said. “So, we looked at the data and what we found was actually kids come to our attention at the hotline more than once before we actually intervene and take actions.”

However, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Services Agency observed a drop in calls by 50 percent almost overnight when schools were closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19

The agency had previously waited for abuse or neglect to occur. With fewer adults monitoring children in public, they’ve had to transform to identify high risk factor families and step in before traumatic experiences occur.

Chang explains children often come to the attention of the program long before intervention of any kind occurs. 

“We looked and found that there were a lot of moderate risk families who had come to our attention even in the last six months. We knew based on the data and the research analysis that those families had a significantly higher chance of actually escalating in need and needing foster care as an intervention tool,” Chang said. “Most families who come into the foster care system today for neglect are often tied to issues of poverty. Right? So, we’re talking about a mom who has a mental health issue, but she can’t afford going to the doctor or paying for her medication. We have parents who have to work the second shift and can’t find affordable childcare, domestic violence situations where the mom is now trying to get housing to get out of that dangerous situation. We decided that we weren’t going to sit idly by and wait until things got better before we took action.”

They say it’s not a bad thing that more families find themselves in times of need as so many are in the same boat.

“I think have to step out of this mindset is that, that blames and shames people, because they struggle again. I think COVID-19 has shown us that we are all just a few steps from needing that help. We have to be willing to ask those questions of what I can do for you instead of saying, you know, I’m going to call you into this hotline and report you,” Chang said. “For far too long our system has kind of treated some parents as bad people and it’s been based on racism and classism and all these different isms, right? Where we treat some people less than and we no longer want to be a part of that, right? Our child welfare agency wants to treat all families with dignity and respect and assume that they like us care about their children, want the best for them but maybe are just struggling for a helping hand.”

Their ultimate goal is not to separate families but reunite families that have been separated. The child welfare system is closely tied with the courts and with those closed reunifications were stalled as well.

Now through Zoom, families can participate in hearings to reunite with their children faster than ever before.

Though much has changed, their hotline remains, and Chang urges the community to step up and make calls if they notice instances of abuse or neglect at 855.444.3911. 

“It is up to all of us to protect these children, there is no one agency or group that can cover all the bases,” Chang said. “We urge people that no matter what else is going on, our hotline is open 24/7. It is constantly staffed by professionals who know how to guide you through that conversation. If you have any concerns that our child is being abused, we urge you to call.”