Warmlines are Lifelines to Families During COVID-19

By Timothy Phipps

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As someone who helps other fathers navigate the child welfare system, my ability to do my job is based on trust. Parents navigating the complexities of the child welfare system and the stigma that comes with it need to know that I have their best interests at heart. Even before COVID-19, it’s a challenging system with many twists and turns on the way to family reunification. Because I myself have been through what they have and was given a second chance to do something positive for my community, I have a unique perspective to be able to walk someone through that process so they don’t feel alone and scared.

Helplines or “warmlines” are one way families can proactively access the critical support they need. Helplines are widely available to 95% of the U.S. population, and effective helplines have been shown to promote child and family well-being by connecting families with the support they need, such as food, housing, clothing, mental health services, transportation, and child care. During the COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon, when there has been a 60% decrease in calls to child protection hotlines — the point of entry for engaging Child Protective Services (CPS) where mandatory and voluntary reporters share suspicions of child maltreatment — helplines fill an important need for families struggling during these difficult times.

Helplines are a critical resource to families precisely because they sit outside the child welfare system. They can encourage families to reach out for help before a situation gets truly dire, because helplines are available to all families — not just those in the child welfare system. They can normalize and reduce the stigma around seeking help at a time when countless families are stressed and stretched. Perhaps most importantly, helplines keep families supported by their communities.

CPS hotlines simply aren’t equipped to handle all but the most serious cases. Nationally, only about 10% of calls to child abuse hotlines ultimately lead to confirmed findings of physical abuse or neglect. Most families who come to the attention of child protection systems are struggling with a crisis — with their mental health, with their family finances, with drug addiction — that can often be better addressed by giving the family support rather than taking the extreme measure of removing the child from the home. As a mandatory reporter, my concern is that we teach and ingrain this need to report but not support families. At this moment, we have an opportunity and an obligation to strengthen this role in our communities.

Unfortunately, too few families are aware of 2–1–1 programs or helplines. In short, they’re underutilized and they have a minimal public presence. These services exist within our communities and they are helpful to families who access them. Part of my job is to let more fathers like myself know help is there waiting — sometimes it’s as simple as picking up the phone. To best respond to the crisis of COVID-19, we must build on what we know works best to support the safety and well-being of children and families: giving families a place in their communities where they can find support and resources to help them overcome their challenges.

What we need is to build the capacity of community based providers to ensure families get what they need outside of the child welfare system and from helplines before it’s too late.

Timothy Phipps is a father and parent mentor based in Portland, Oregon

Young people + parents + relative caregivers working together to elevate voices of those with firsthand experience = change in the child welfare system

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