Coronavirus: Why experts are worried about steep decline in child abuse reports

Montgomery County Children Services campus on North Main Street in Dayton. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Montgomery County Children Services campus on North Main Street in Dayton. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Calls to child abuse and neglect hotlines have plunged since the coronavirus pandemic began, and while that trend should be cause for celebration it has children’s services officials deeply worried.

Local children’s services officials say the decrease in calls could mean simply less reporting of abuse, not less abuse.

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With the COVID-19 quarantine, many children had fewer in-person interactions with teachers, summer camp counselors, therapists and others. Stress in many households is up - in adults and children.

That combination has led children’s services officials to urge those who come in contact with children to be extra vigilant and to report problems.

“Communities are really going to have to be looking at children,” Warren County Children Services Director Susan Walther said. “If they are unsure, they can call and ask questions.”

LESS INTERACTION WITH MANDATED REPORTERS

Jewel Good, assistant director of the Children Services Division of Montgomery County Job & Family Services, says her agency saw a 42 percent reduction in reports to the child-abuse hotline in April compared to April 2019.

“We saw a reduction and then we saw a further reduction,” Good said.

Child-abuse reports are down around the state.

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Greene County officials report a nearly 60 percent decrease in reports between April 2019 and April 2020. The numbers for the first part of May have been down 31 percent compared to the same time in May 2019.

In Montgomery County, there were 1,257 calls of suspected neglect or abuse in April 2019.

With reports from court personnel, teachers, principals and other school staff down due to closures and the stay-at-home order, a significant chunk of the 746 reports this April came from police. Good says that means the situations were likely more serious because intervention from law enforcement was needed.

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Compared to a year earlier, of all the calls they received in April, five percent more resulted in the department opening a case for investigation, Good said. That number is up 3 percent from the first part of May of this year compared to May 2019, her agency said.

More than two weeks ago, advocates voiced concerns that the Dayton police department has seen a sharp decline in the number of domestic violence reports. Dayton Police Department received 126 reports of simple assault related to domestic violence in April, which was down nearly 25 percent from April 2019, according to department data.

Police received 142 reports in March, which was an 11 percent decrease from last year.

A NATIONAL CONCERN

The severity of the child abuse that is reported is a concern felt in many places around the nation. Pennsylvania hospitals for instance are treating more children with severe child-abuse injuries, according to a recent article in the York Daily Record.

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In April 2019 in Montgomery County, there were 75 calls from teachers and 24 from principals. In April 2020, there have been 25 calls from teachers and eight from principals. In April 2019, there were 170 reports from school nurses and other school personal and court workers. That number dropped to 34 this past April.

NOT ENOUGH EYES ON CHILDREN

Last month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine echoed that sentiment, according to the Associated Press, saying “we do not have enough eyes on these children” and asking “everyone else to try to be more vigilant.”

Walther, Warren County Children Services’ director, said the calls to her agency this spring were nearly half what they were last year over the same span.

There have been 356 reports this year, compared to 603 the same time frame a year ago, she said. Reports from mandated reporters fell 85 percent in the county, she said.

“But it’s not just mandated reporters; it is family members we are not seeing,” she said. “No one is seeing their neighbors.”

Things like doctor and therapy visits have moved to video appointments. Some summer camps have also been canceled or gone virtual.

NEW NEEDS

Walther said overdoses have increased since the virus and stress is up in households even when parents are still working.

“People are more frustrated in their homes,” she said.

Nearly 40 million people in the nation have sought jobless benefits since the pandemic began to impact lives on a large scale roughly 10 weeks ago.

In Montgomery County, for instance, 2,328 people filed new claims in the week ending May 16, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Continuing jobless claims for the county were at 33,601.

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Walther predicted that the nature of calls will change as the need for things like food increases.

Greene County Department of Job and Family Services Director Beth Rubin said reports of abuse and neglect in her county decreased by about 57 percent in April compared to April 2019. There were 235 reports in April 2019 and 101 reports this April.

A more recent comparison shows that reports were down about 33 percent from the beginning of March to the beginning of May of this year, she said in an email.

“We believe that the decline in activities outside the home contributes to fewer reports — there is simply less opportunity for another involved adult to become aware of concerns that might otherwise be reported to the agency,” Rubin wrote. She said community partners and professionals have found innovative ways to keep in touch with children and families, and reports are beginning to increase.

“‘Keeping in touch’ has been one of the crucial lessons for all of us during this crisis, whether we’re talking about kids or seniors, mental health or family violence, etc.,” Rubin wrote. “This has really highlighted our need to connect with one another.”

MORE VIGILANCE NEEDED

Good said the April statistics illustrate why those who do come in contact with children — be it through video chats or in person — should be even more vigilant.

“Have conversations about their emotional well-being. Are they getting enough to eat? What did you eat? The biggest challenge is the inability of people to do a full-body assessment,” she said. “It is important to have that contact when they are alone with the child.”

Good said the coronavirus pandemic also has meant the agency’s 170 caseworkers donning protective gear have had to be more creative when making visits to the 2,000 children served by children’s services and when investigating suspected abuse. She said the work continues even though some methods have changed.

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“I have staff who are going into homes wearing personal protective equipment,” she said. Caseworkers limit touching children and items in homes, and rely on parents to do things like lift shirts if physical abuse is suspected and open refrigerator doors to evaluate food supply. In some incidents, when coronavirus is suspected, appointments are rescheduled. Caseworkers also have used alternative measures such as evaluating children on porches, in doorways and other areas.

Rochelle Garner, director of YWCA’s Girls LEAD, a program that supports girls between the ages of 11 and 18, said she has not seen an uptick in abuse but knows the coronavirus pandemic has caused stress for many parents and children. Garner said children should know they have outlets.

“It is OK to talk about their feelings,” she said.

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