COVID-19 and Preventing Harm to Vulnerable Children

Jessica K. Heldman, Margaret A. Dalton, Robert C. Fellmeth - San Diego Law Review

Although COVID-19 mercifully seems to affect children less severely than adults, children are far from immune from the impacts of the virus. Public health orders closing schools and businesses, cancelling events, and keeping children at home have been disruptive and distressing to many children and families. But for children who rely on government entities for protection, care, custody, and services, the effects of the public health orders can be devastating. COVID-19 and the response to it has serious implications for the safety, well-being, and development of these vulnerable children— those within the child welfare, juvenile justice, and special education systems. All three groups consist of children to whom the state has legal obligations. Additionally, all three groups consist disproportionately of children of color, a reality being brought to the forefront in the context of this pandemic and beyond.

As these child-serving systems adapt to the new realities defined by public health limitations, there exists an opportunity to address both immediate challenges as well as enduring concerns within these complex structures. This Article explores the current state of child rights within the child welfare, juvenile justice, and special education systems, highlighting concerns that pre-date COVID-19 as well as recent legal implications of the pandemic. Each section examines the particular repercussions of the pandemic and the response to it on children and proposes potential remedies. It also offers perspective on how meeting today’s critical challenges can result in longterm systemic improvements.