Scratchboard illustration by Julia Terbrock

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This story was published with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

The District had seen warning signs prior to 2-year-old Gabriel Eason’s death. But after suffering months of abuse at home, in April 2020 Gabriel died from what medical examiners determined was significant head and abdominal trauma while under the care of his mother, Ta’Jeanna Eason, and her boyfriend Antonio Turner.

On October 9, 2019, a child care center called the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) abuse hotline to report that 2-year-old Gabriel had an unexplained injury, according to an affidavit provided to the D.C. Superior Court by the Metropolitan Police Department. MPD investigators visited the Northeast home Eason and Turner shared, but by March 2020 investigators had not found enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegation of abuse, according to the affidavit. They closed the case.

Soon after that case closed, Eason called 911 after finding Gabriel unconscious. When police arrived at the home, they found EMTs attempting to revive Gabriel. Their attempts failed, and the boy was declared dead at the scene.

An autopsy showed both new and old injuries to his body, including lacerations of the kidney and liver, injuries to the heart, swelling of the head and brain, blunt trauma to the genitals, and 36 rib fractures, some of which were healing and believed to originate from an earlier incident. Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Sasha Breland determined the main cause of death was significant abdominal and head trauma.

Gabriel’s two older brothers experienced physical trauma as well. The 3-year-old was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Children’s National Hospital with life-threatening injuries, new and old. The 11-year-old had a healing black eye in addition to older injuries. Both surviving boys were placed in D.C. foster care. In November 2020, police arrested Eason and Turner, who were charged with first degree murder and cruelty to children.

The injuries and abuse occurred in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when none of the boys were attending in-person school or child care. There was not much chance for someone outside their family to see the bruises or report the abuse.

While it’s difficult to connect pandemic-prompted isolation to Gabriel’s death with certainty, the circumstances highlight the consequences of keeping children away from public settings like child care and school, especially for children at risk of abuse or neglect.

There is a system in place meant to protect children like Gabriel and his brothers. It starts with professionals who work with children, like day care workers, teachers, and pediatricians. In D.C., those professionals are required to report all suspected abuse to CFSA’s hotline. It is then CFSA’s responsibility to follow up on the calls it receives and determine whether or not to pursue an investigation. CFSA works to intervene in cases like Gabriel’s before it’s too late. MPD also plays a role in protecting children; however, its role is limited and involves investigating crimes and arresting offenders after documented abuse has occurred.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the processes and procedures that once supported D.C.’s child welfare systems ground to a halt. Family court hearings were suspended and proceedings became more backlogged. Social workers struggled to safely enter homes for welfare checks. And abuse referrals to the CFSA hotline plummeted, even as parents and children spent more time than ever at home together.

As soon as the pandemic started, Dr. Allison Jackson, division chief of the Child and Adolescent Protection Center at Children’s National Hospital, says she worried about the children who would now be out of sight.

“As soon as it shut down, I was nervous,” Jackson says. “Teachers or other school personnel are often those trusted known entities for a child that they could disclose something to. And kids all of a sudden didn’t have access to that.” Jackson’s concern was warranted: Referral calls to CFSA decreased significantly at the beginning of the pandemic, but her team’s caseload of children with abuse injuries nearly doubled.

School personnel are often the main drivers of referrals for child abuse and neglect reports. According to DC Public Schools, all DCPS employees and contractors—including school officials, teachers, coaches, nurses, and mental health professionals—are mandated reporters and must report suspected child abuse and neglect.

In a typical year, reports of child abuse drop during the summer because children are not as visible to their teachers and other outside caretakers. The pandemic has created a similar drop in referrals: Looking at the data CFSA collected, it’s as if summer began in April 2020 and continued even when virtual school started up again in the fall.

“There were times when I made CFSA referrals. Students had disclosed to me at school [before the pandemic],” says Zach Carroll, a middle school social studies teacher at School Without Walls in West End. “With students taking remote classes, there is potentially less privacy to self disclose and have those conversations confidentially with adults in school. My school doesn’t require cameras to be on, so it can be more difficult to see bruises.”

Since remote learning began in March 2020, some D.C.-area teachers have noticed changing economic and housing situations just from the backgrounds of students’ video calls. A teacher at a school in Northeast, who requested anonymity due to the nature of her work, says she noticed one of her students was learning with their whole family in one room, and she later saw the student had moved spaces to what appeared to be a shelter or group home.

“COVID has put everyone in economic despair. I teach special ed, so I have at-risk students who also have learning disabilities,” the teacher says. “I have had a glimpse into students that have a really difficult home life, and probably have had some sort of interaction with foster care or homelessness.”

Even though teachers now have a unique new view into students’ home lives, it’s generally more difficult to catch on to any potentially abusive or neglectful situations.

“It’s definitely more difficult, in my personal opinion,” the Northeast special ed teacher says. “In the classroom, if I need to pull a student into a lesson, I could go and walk to them and be like, ‘We’re going to my classroom.’ With online learning, I’m calling kids in for a lesson and they won’t answer.”

In a world without in-person school, advocates say, no one is there to speak up for at-risk children—sometimes until it’s too late.

Chart courtesy of Marie Cohen, childwelfaremonitordc.com

Collecting data about child abuse and neglect is difficult because so many cases remain unknown and undocumented. D.C. officials who work with child abuse and neglect see the drop in CFSA hotline calls and are haunted by untold stories that the pandemic has hidden from public view. Are there more children out there like Gabriel Eason and his siblings, they wonder, who, in the midst of the pandemic, aren’t seen until serious or fatal abuse has already occurred?

Becky Fowkes, deputy director of outreach at CASA for Children of DC, says she has felt nervous about the children that may be left behind during the pandemic.

“In the community and in human services, it’s understood that it’s not that fewer children are being neglected and abused, it’s that [the neglect and abuse] is going underreported,” says Fowkes, whose organization provides trained volunteers, known as court-appointed special advocates, to support vulnerable and at-risk youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

In cases of child abuse, it’s not always likely that family members will intervene. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families reported that in 2019, 91.4 percent of child abuse victims are maltreated by one or both parents. D.C. has a relatively high rate of child maltreatment, with ACF reporting 14.5 per 1,000 D.C. children having experienced maltreatment in 2019, as compared to the national average of 8.9 per 1,000 children.

“Judges have indicated cases that are coming into family court are some of the most severe and egregious cases of violence, where kids are getting in the hospital,” says Allison Kahn-Pauli, chief of staff at CASA DC. “There are no eyes seeing those [violent cases] right now. Family court is seeing less referrals because the typical stream of individuals who have eyes is gone.”

Jackson at Children’s National says her division has seen a roughly 79-percent increase in the number of kids who are hospitalized with abusive injuries compared to the year prior to the pandemic. During the pandemic, pediatric wards have not been hit with the surge of COVID-19 patients like adult hospitals have. But the uptick in child patients with traumatic injuries has been a heavy burden to bear for Jackson and pediatricians on her staff and around the country.

“When you see so much trauma, it really is a heavy load and so upsetting,” Jackson says. “Surely there are kids who are being missed or where reports are not taking place. When kids are physically injured and they’re sick and they’re hurting, it’s no surprise that we will see them at the hospital. … But if they’re not sick or injured to the extent that medical attention is needed, those are the kids who we worry even more about, who are still suffering in silence.”

For children at risk of abuse and neglect, pandemic-induced social distancing created social isolation and loss of hope for rescue from any unfortunate circumstances. And for children living in neglectful or abusive homes, the pandemic is the perfect storm.

“The mental health toll is high,” Fowkes says. “We see that. Schools are seeing that. With physical abuse or outright neglect, which is happening … kids have already been through major trauma. And now we’re compounding that trauma with isolation, fear, stress in the home because of unemployment or access to food or security. Everything affects everything else.”

A growing body of evidence and research suggests that emergencies and natural disasters escalate a child’s risk for abuse or neglect due to weakened child protection systems and stress upon parents. According to the World Health Organization, disasters “disrupt the physical and social environments that shape health and health problems, including violence … The effects of disasters are likely to increase individuals’, families’, and communities’ vulnerability to violence.”

A 2019 study by the Texas Council on Family Violence on how Hurricane Harvey affected families that had already experienced domestic violence found that the stress associated with disaster led to higher rates of both domestic violence and child abuse after the hurricane. During the pandemic, parents are seeing a similar reduced access to resources, increased stress from job loss or strained finances, and a disconnect from social support systems.

Many families affected by national emergencies—in this case, COVID-19—and especially those of lower socioeconomic status face greater social and economic pressures than more well-off families in the same conditions. So when a yearlong pandemic decimated the U.S. economy, causing millions of people to lose their jobs, authorities made the logical assumption that child abuse and neglect is not dropping. Rather, it’s likely increasing without as much intervention from mandatory reporters like school and day care personnel.

“Just measuring your success by foster care rolls and referrals going down, that is not appropriate because CFSA exists to make sure kids are safe,” says Marie Cohen, a former social worker in the D.C. foster care system and author of the website Child Welfare Monitor. “The purpose of CSFA is not to put itself out of business. The purpose is to protect kids.”

In CFSA’s annual performance oversight hearing for fiscal year 2020, held on Feb. 25, 2021, CFSA Director Brenda Donald reported CFSA experienced a decline in many aspects of reporting abuse and neglect. From the beginning of the public health emergency in D.C. through the end of the 2019-20 school year, CFSA saw a 62 percent decline in hotline reports of abuse and neglect from the same time frame in 2019.

The six-hour hearing included testimonies from D.C. foster children, foster parents, advocates, and councilmembers who expressed their viewpoints on CFSA’s strengths and weaknesses. Some pointed out the city had essentially lost more than a year of oversight of vulnerable children.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau served as moderator for the virtual hearing and seemed skeptical of Donald’s testimony. CFSA Deputy Director Robert Matthews joined Donald in responding to Nadeau’s questions, which addressed the shortcomings CFSA had seen during the pandemic.

“Hotline calls are still incredibly low,” Nadeau said. “Do we feel that where we are now is accurate?”

“What we do believe is that our outreach to schools and to others, the uptick in calls is starting to normalize,” Matthews said. “Teachers are calling the hotline.”

Nadeau, unsatisfied with his answer, said CFSA would need to continue sending training to teachers, especially those who have continued to teach virtually. Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George pointed out that Shannon Hodge, executive founding member of the D.C. Charter School Alliance, had said in an earlier testimony that her organization was not aware of CFSA’s development training.

“Please reach out to her,” George advised.

As tensions rose in the hearing, Nadeau zeroed in on CFSA’s list of backlogged case investigations.

“In FY21, CFSA reports more than twice as many backlogged investigations than FY20, increasing from 32 to 74,” Nadeau said. “How does CFSA intend to remedy this?”

Matthews spoke generally about investigation time frames and requesting information from hospitals or case workers.

“I see,” Nadeau said. “So what is the answer then?”

Matthews explained that CFSA has waited for data from hospitals that already have a COVID-related backlog. “We need that information to make determinations,” he said. “We don’t necessarily want to prematurely close an investigation without having the information.”

“Yeah, but it sounds like it actually does matter, it’s not just an administrative hurdle, it actually matters in how the case is handled,” Nadeau responded. “Yikes. OK, well that’s frustrating and if you in your brainstorming can think of any ways that we can be helpful, let us know.”

Tami Weerasingha-Cote, senior policy attorney at Children’s Law Center and a resident of the District, also testified during CFSA’s performance oversight hearing. Weerasingha-Cote’s testimony described CFSA’s “continued struggle to provide stable placement for foster care children” during the pandemic. The testimony described CFSA doing the best it could with the precarious situation in which the pandemic placed foster youth.

“Many of D.C.’s resource parents work jobs that lack the flexibility to work from home. For these families, it has been particularly difficult to oversee and support virtual instruction,” Weerasingha-Cote wrote in her testimony.

Resource families, who include foster parents and kinship caregivers, play a large part in supporting children who are under CFSA’s care. Taylor Woodman, a Ward 4 resident and licensed resource parent for D.C. foster youth, testified about his experience as a resource parent, urging CFSA to provide more COVID-related assistance, including vaccine appointments for their resource parents.

But CFSA can only protect the children it knows about. The children who are out of school and off teachers’ and caregivers’ radar, like Gabriel Eason and his brothers, are likely among those most affected by the pandemic.

“We need an army to end child abuse, and to respond to those who experienced it, whether they’re pediatric patients or adults or survivors of child abuse,” Jackson says. “And I think because it’s been amplified so much during the pandemic, my hope is that it will get the attention that it’s due, and the resources that are needed in order to really affect change.”

If you have concerns about a child’s wellbeing or need to report abuse or neglect, resources are available to you.

In D.C.: Call CFSA’s 24-hour hotline, (202) 671-7233. Written resources are available at cfsa.dc.gov/service/report-child-abuse-and-neglect.

In Montgomery County: Call the 24-hour Child Welfare Services Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, (240) 777-4417.

In Prince George’s County: Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, call (301) 909-2450. Outside of those hours, call (301) 699-8605. Find additional information about the county’s child abuse prevention initiative at pgcsafekids.org.

In Arlington County: Call Child Protective Services’ 24-hour emergency hotline, (703) 228-1500, or 911. Mandated reporters can file a report through the Department of Social Services’ secure website, vacps.dss.virginia.gov.

In Fairfax County: Report abuse or seek advice by calling the Child Protective Services 24-hour hotline, (703) 324-7400. Tips for recognizing abuse and answers to frequently asked questions are available at fairfaxcounty.gov/familyservices/children-youth/report-child-abuse.

Find information about becoming a volunteer court-appointed special advocate for a child in your community by visiting the organizations’ websites: casadc.org, voicesforchildrenmontgomery.org, pgcasa.org, scanva.org/casa, fairfaxcasa.org