COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that claimed at least 308 Coloradans’ lives and caused 7,691 official cases in the state as of midday Tuesday, has brought average daily life to somewhat of a standstill.


“Non-essential” businesses have been told to close their doors. Schools everywhere have canceled spring sports and teachers and students have retreated to the confines of their own homes for online learning. Public gatherings have been placed on pause, with some events canceled indefinitely.


The arrival in Colorado of COVID-19 in early March also rapidly led to slower work or outright unemployment for thousands of Coloradans. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said on April 2 that more than 60,000 unemployment claims were filed in Colorado through the month of March.


Health concerns and a limping economy will be difficult to bare for many, but human services officials are worried about another consequence brought about by the pandemic.


Calls to 1-844-CO-4-KIDS, the state hotline where one can report suspected child abuse and neglect, have halved since public health orders were issued weeks ago, said Donna Rohde, director of human services in Otero County.


Coincidentally, the drastic drop in child abuse calls coincides with Child Abuse Prevention Month, which lasts through the month of April.


“There's no doubt in my mind that just because the calls have dropped, and I'm sure they have for domestic violence as well, just because the calls have stopped does not mean that the incidents of abuse have stopped,” Rohde said.


Social distancing guidelines and business closure orders to restrict the transmission of COVID-19 play a roll in the decreased calls to abuse hotlines for adults as well as children, Rohde said. When virtually everyone is cooped up at home, they aren’t engaging with other people who might recognize signs of abuse or stress in person.


“You're not probably seeing your therapist, and you're certainly not seeing your hairdresser, you're not seeing those folks that you normally see. And obviously for the kids, they're not seeing their teachers. But if you're an abused man or woman, you're not out at the grocery store, you're not, and your abuser's not out.”


Human services doesn’t just work with victims of abuse. The department provides supplemental funding to families and individuals in need of assistance. It facilitates programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).


The department also assists foster/kinship families and children in related activities.


Human services is maintaining many of these services, but staff there are having to adapt to the pandemic and social distancing efforts.


Department staff are working remotely as much as possible, Rohde said, and the department is working to ensure that only one staff member is in any given office at any given time.


“For safety reasons, adult protective and child protective visits must be done in person,” said Rohde. “That is one of the most vital tools we have to try to ensure safety of these vulnerable populations. All referrals that meet criteria are still being responded to as they were previously. All court proceedings have either been postponed or are being done by phone. All redetermination visits are being done by phone.


Our front desk phones have been forwarded to staff who are answering them remotely. At this point we are not able to access PPE as those are being prioritized to our health care workers and first responders. If PPE becomes available, our APS (Adult Protective Services) and CW (Child Welfare) staff will be able to access it.“


Rohde referenced Southeast Health Group, who she said published a number for anyone to call if they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed: (719) 383-5454, or (719) 691-6033.


Human services is also coordinating with local schools and the federal government to provide adult lunches in addition to the lunches that schools are providing to students.


Regardless of one’s living circumstances, COVID-19 and the measures necessary to slow its spread have burdened families.


As Rohde put it: “All families with children are struggling with having to tell them that they cannot visit friends, cannot play with their friends, cannot have or go to birthday parties, will not have extracurricular activities such as sports, and will likely not have prom or graduation. It is a difficult concept for adults to grasp and almost impossible for many children to grasp.“


That includes foster families and biological parents who don’t have custody of their children, who are having to adapt to social distancing, too.


Kids are having to visit their biological parents through video, phone and text.


“Obviously, ensuring a strong bond remains when families are working toward reunification is critical,” Rohde said.


And as indicated by a drop in child abuse and neglect calls, Rohde said, “There is a statewide worry that without schools and without in person physician / therapist visits, that there are fewer eyes on our vulnerable children.”


Amy Palamino of Otero County Human Services’ child welfare wing stressed that child welfare services are still live and that the department is still taking referrals and assessments. Palamino said reports are always taken anonymously, with or without the pandemic, and that the abuse hotline is still open and taking calls.


Rohde acknowledged her department heads and staff, and thanked them for working through and adjusting to uncertain circumstances presented by the coronavirus.


Rohde acknowledged the following human services department heads by name:


Amy Palamino


Ann Rustle


Jim Collins


JoAnna Finney


Tim Lofint


cburney@ljtdmail.com