Written by Michelle Ries
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and this April, child advocates and experts are focused on the many ways in which families need support to be able to provide safe, stable, and nurturing environments for children while under tremendous stress from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2014, NCIOM has partnered with several state organizations to implement strategies for child maltreatment prevention, under the CDC Essentials for Childhood framework. This framework includes strategies to provide economic supports for families (including policies to address income and food and housing security), ensure family-friendly workplace policies, and enhance trauma-informed practices and communities. As our state continues its stay-at-home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, North Carolina partners recognize the increased need for such strategies to support families. In an April letter to its members, the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force stated:
With families sheltering at home together and many facing enormous additional stressors related to income, home schooling, food or housing insecurity and so many other challenges, some children are facing greater risks. On March 19th, Prevent Child Abuse America sent a letter to U.S. congressional leaders asking them to consider the needs of vulnerable children as they craft an economic stimulus package, stating: “As parents are experiencing lost wages due to reduced work hours, lack of childcare, or budgets being stretched, parental stress increases. Access to concrete supports can be instrumental in lowering familial stress and incidence of child abuse and neglect.” And domestic violence advocates have raised concerns about home not being a safe place for some who are sheltering. At the same time, social service agencies and other service providers have their own challenges in keeping their employees and clients safe in a time of social distancing. Please keep these vulnerable children and families in mind as we navigate these challenging times.
Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina has developed several resources for families and caregivers to help support children’s needs, and has also been working to ensure that their parenting support programs can continue through virtual delivery. Please see: Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina Parent and Caregiver Guide and Social Media Toolkit
In addition, there is ongoing action at the state and federal level to address several economic needs of children and families at this time, and to provide the concrete supports needed to reduce families’ stress and prevent child abuse and neglect. Some of these actions include:
Food and housing security: North Carolina officials have taken steps to increase funding for schools to provide students with food services during the pandemic, to create other state systems to provide food assistance to families, and to temporarily increase state Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) benefits received by over 360,000 households. In addition, Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order on March 31 prohibiting utility shut-offs and discouraging evictions and foreclosures. At the federal level, work and work training requirements will be lifted for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beginning in April until the public health emergency declaration is lifted by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Funding has also been allocated to the Secretary of Agriculture to increase federal funds that states request for federal school breakfast and lunch programs. These funds help purchase equipment, pay food service staff, and purchase food supplies that are currently being used to implement “grab and go” bags and meal delivery at many schools.
Paid leave: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress permits employees who are unable to work due to quarantine orders by a health care provider, or are experiencing symptoms and seeking diagnosis, up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at their regular rate of pay (up to $511 per day). Employees are eligible for two-thirds of their regular pay (up to $200 per day) if they are caring for an individual who is subject to self-quarantine, caring for a child if their school has been closed, or experiencing “any other substantially similar condition specified by” the Secretary of the US DHHS. This paid leave applies to private businesses with fewer than 500 employees and all public employers, with exemptions available for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees if compliance would threaten their viability. Employers may receive a sick leave credit for an employee who is unable to work due to self-quarantine or is showing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking medical diagnosis or having to take care of someone with these symptoms.
Unemployment: North Carolina has amended state unemployment benefit regulations to remove, most notably, the previously required one-week waiting period and attestation that the applicant is looking for work. The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act allocates $500 million to states using a population ratio and another $500 million to states where unemployment compensation claims increase by 10% over quarter two from 2019. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides a $600 per week supplement to state benefits for four months. North Carolina’s weekly benefit is calculated by adding wages from the last two quarters of employment divided by 52, with a maximum weekly benefit of $350.
Child care: Child care is deemed an essential human services operation under Executive Order 121, in order to support the continued work of health care providers, frontline responders, law enforcement, and other workers deemed essential. While some facilities remain open and can provide care for children of these workers, over one-third of North Carolina child care facilities have closed, and others are running at 60% capacity. Even in normal circumstances, child care facilities run on tight margins, workers are paid little, and many families have difficulty finding affordable and reliable care. In March and April 2020, the Division of Child Care and Early Education (DCDEE) in the NC Department of Health and Human Services implemented several new measures to address child care needs, including: 1) subsidized child care program payments to all subsidized child care providers for March, April, and May, regardless of whether facilities are open or closed; 2) establishment of an Emergency Child Care Subsidy Program to provide financial aid to parents and caregivers who are essential workers, do not have other child care options, and have incomes below 300% of the federal poverty level; 3) additional new guidelines for health and safety procedures in child care facilities; and 4) referrals to available child care options for parents or caregivers who are essential workers. DCDEE is also providing bonus payments for child care staff: full-time teachers will receive $300 per month, full-time non-teaching staff will receive $200 per month (includes directors, administrators, cooks, janitors, and other workers), and part-time workers are eligible for bonus payments of $150 per month for teachers and $100 per month for non-teaching staff. Additionally, North Carolina is expected to receive $115 million in support for child care facilities from the federal CARES Act (see more below), and child and family serving advocacy organizations in the state are requesting additional state action, in the form of an $125 million Child Care Emergency Economic Support Package, both to support facilities who are providing care for children of essential workers, and to ensure that closed facilities can reopen at a later date and continue providing care.
Additional federal action: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act: Signed by President Trump on March 27, 2020, the CARES Act dedicates $2.5 trillion in federal spending, by far the largest stimulus bill ever passed by Congress. It includes stimulus checks to individuals and families, a supplement to unemployment insurance benefits, loans for small and large businesses, and funding for hospitals, community health centers, and state and local governments.