April has been designated as National Child Abuse Prevention Month to create awareness about the importance of strengthening families and preventing child abuse and neglect. Children are our most valuable resources; they are our future. Unfortunately, they also tend to be our most vulnerable and at-risk population for abuse and neglect.

During the month of April many government agencies and the public take part in ceremonies and events to promote healthy, strong, and safe children and families. Public officials issue proclamations, blue pinwheels become a part of the landscape around child welfare offices, schools, and hospital buildings, while billboards display messages and a call to action to report suspected child abuse and neglect. According to the CDC, “a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds”. The increased visibility around child abuse and neglect coupled with the intrinsic motivation to do what is right often causes individuals and mandated reporters to dial child abuse and neglect hotlines at a much greater rate leading to a surge in reports in the month of April.

As a former child welfare worker, I can recall attending the public events surrounding Child Abuse Prevention Month. From planting pinwheels to wearing all blue, every April came with a slew of exciting things to do sharing in the good cause of preventing child abuse. On the other hand, April was also one of my most dreaded months because of the spike in reports. One mid-April day, I remember vividly coming back to the office from an awareness event hosted by our local child advocacy center. Upon checking in with my supervisor, I learned that our investigations team was going to be down two workers for at least a couple of months due to one resigning without notice and one taking extended leave. This news was devastating given the fact that we were already severely understaffed and taking on more work than we could handle. What was four workers handling reports for an entire medium sized county quickly turned to two workers in a matter of hours. For the entire month of April and the next couple of months to follow, I and one other worker struggled to keep up with the daily calls reporting child abuse and neglect. It seemed like the reports just kept coming. There were several days where I would get to the office at 8:30 in the morning and immediately hit the streets to make contact with families only to get back to the office at 7:00 in the evening to find yet another case sitting on my desk to start working on the next day. I started taking my laptop home with me to enter my documentation to try and stay ahead knowing that I would not have time in the day to sit at my desk. Soon, this began to affect my sleep and overall daily life. Every day, my coworker and I began to get more and more reports only to get further and further behind. Files began to pile up at our desks and overdue alerts popped up in our system. No longer did we have time to document the work we were doing, no longer did we have time to make follow up visits with families to discuss needs and resources, nor did we even have time to close cases; and forget about taking a lunch break. Our sole focus and priority had shifted to just laying eyes on children to ensure their safety and hopefully get to the next case before the end of the day.

From April to June, caseload sizes had doubled with many of the cases lying dormant simply because we did not have the capacity to complete work on them. Behind each case was a family in need of supports and services but we simply did not have the time to complete a thorough assessment to get them the help many of them desperately needed. It wasn’t until mid-June when schools were out and summer began that we finally started to see a decrease in the number of cases we were receiving weekly. The call volume started to subside and we could actually breathe a little. Two new staff members joined our teams and began to shadow us in preparation to receive cases and our coworker who was out on extended leave returned. We then saw a dim light at the end of the tunnel. What started as a month recognized nationally to raise awareness in an effort to prevent child abuse ended leaving two workers feeling extremely overwhelmed and overburdened on the brink of quitting due to burnout amid the other stressors of the job. Throughout all of the difficult days, nights, and weekends which often felt as though there was no end to the madness, there were some positives that came from that year’s ‘spring crisis’:

  1. Highlighted the Capacity Crisis within our office and in child welfare offices nationwide.
  2. Prepared us for the influx of reports in the coming months once school started back.
  3. Gave management a realistic snapshot of the dangers of high caseloads combined with high vacancies leading to a push for rapid hiring events.
  4. Allowed us to plan for future child welfare awareness events which will often lead to an increase in reports.

As many agencies and organizations plan events to recognize Child Abuse Prevention Month and the need for supportive services to ensure our families are safe and prevent child abuse and neglect, let us also remember to plan to prevent the capacity crisis that can so easily get us behind, disabling workers from meeting the needs of our most vulnerable families. By increasing the capacity of the child welfare workforce, we make it possible to serve more families promptly and improve the outcomes for those involved in our systems.

1. all4kids, “National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Children’s Bureau,” Child Abuse Prevention, Treatment & Welfare Services | Children’s Bureau, 2023.

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