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SPECIAL REPORT: Social workers step on frontlines of pandemic to protect Iowa's youth

Courtesy:{ }UnityPoint Health - St. Luke's Hospital
Courtesy: UnityPoint Health - St. Luke's Hospital
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In March of 2020, the world changed, as a global pandemic hit.

Schools and businesses shut down and people were forced to work from home.

However, for the Department of Human Services, working from a computer and virtually investigating child abuse isn't an option.

“We’ve really had to view our social workers and many of the providers who do those in-home visits as essential staff,” said Janee Harvey, the division administrator over Adult Children and Family Services at the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Those social workers step on the frontlines every day.

“We can’t really risk or afford people not going into homes to check on kids, because the very nature of the work we do is so critical to keeping kids safe,” said Harvey.

The pandemic poses new challenges, obviously one of those is making sure these workers have personal protective equipment when entering these homes.

The other is when schools shut down, children were spending more time at home.

“COVID doesn’t take the risk to kids away, it really amplifies it because the risk is so much greater,” said Harvey.

In 2020, the Child Protection Center at UnityPoint Health - St. Luke’s Hospital, saw a ten percent decrease in sexual abuse cases and exposure to drug cases increased by about eight percent.

In Terms of total cases, staff there served 840 children in 2020.

That number was 900 in 2019.

While having a decrease is something positive, the pandemic may be part of the reason.

"I'm sure that children being out of school and away from mandatory reporters, especially teachers and school counselors, has impacted the number of disclosures or abuse reports," said Julie Kelly-Molander, with UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Child Protection Center.

While staff at UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Child Protection don't physically go into the homes, they're responsible for examining children who could be abused.

This means also risking exposure to the virus,

However, there's a lot of safety measures in place.

"Each family in screened for COVID prior to the appointment and also the day of the appointment. Our staff and families and children are required to wear masks at all times. Our staff also wear face shields whenever they interact with family members. In addition, we separate families in the lobby and we sanitize both prior to them arriving and when they leave the center."

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While it's been challenging navigating the pandemic, these steps are vital to continue keeping children safe and also these essential workers.

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