The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The centers helping child abuse victims have seen 40,000 fewer kids amid the pandemic

With fewer eyes on kids, child abuse reports have declined across the country. (iStock)

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, advocates and educators have warned that the closures of schools would make it terrifyingly difficult to keep a watchful eye on children who are being abused.

Child abuse reports began to plummet across the country — not because it wasn’t happening, but because teachers, doctors and others had fewer ways of catching it. Now, a new survey of children’s advocacy centers across the country offers some of the clearest data yet on the scope of this gap in child abuse reporting.

The centers, which provide support for families and children as abuse cases move through the justice system, reported serving 40,000 fewer children nationwide between January and June of this year than the same period last year, from 192,367 children in 2019 down to 152,016 this year, a 21 percent drop, according to the National Children’s Alliance, an accrediting body for a network of 900 children’s advocacy centers.

“We have absolutely no reason to believe the actual incidence rate has declined,” said Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance. “What we really believe is that there are 40,000 fewer kids that haven’t been saved from abuse."

The total year-long impact may be even greater, the organization said, since schools and advocacy centers functioned normally for the first 10 weeks of the year.

The figures from the centers, which receive referrals from child protective services departments and law enforcement, do not take into account all child abuse reports nationwide; a third of U.S. counties don’t have access to a children’s advocacy center. But annual federal reports of child abuse usually only provide data from two years earlier. The National Children’s Alliance wanted to capture the numbers now, to determine the extent of the decline in child abuse reports.

“What we were dreading did in fact happen,” Huizar said.

In Maryland, children’s advocacy centers reported a 25 percent drop, and in Virginia, a 21 percent drop. But in the District, the drop was smaller — only 3 percent, according to the National Children’s Alliance.

The organization attributed the smaller drop-off in the District in part to the distinct nature of the nation’s capital, and the fact that social isolation is more difficult for children living in a city, compared with more rural areas of the country. There’s also only one children’s advocacy center in D.C., Safe Shores, and it is located in the same building as law enforcement and other partner agencies, making it easier to coordinate operations. The center also worked quickly to shift to teleforensic interviewing and telehealth programs, Huizar said.

Leyla Sandler, the former director of forensic services at Safe Shores, said her team worked with researchers on teleforensic interviewing early on to determine the best and safest approach. Children still showed up on-site, along with a non-offending caregiver and a member of law enforcement or child protective services. But each forensic interviewer was off-site, asking questions through a Zoom call.

“We were doing the same thing, just doing it in a way that nobody had ever done before,” Sandler said.

With kids stuck at home, ER doctors see more severe cases of child abuse

But Safe Shores only receives a fraction of the child abuse cases referred to D.C. authorities. Total hotline calls to D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency through June of this year declined by 32 percent, compared to the same period last year. But when comparing only April through June of this year to the same period last year, total hotline calls declined by 63 percent.

Year after year, more than two-thirds of child abuse cases are reported by teachers and other community professionals. And no group reports more than educators, who were responsible for 21 percent of the 4.3 million referrals made to child protective services in 2018, according to federal data. With schools, day-care centers and summer camps closed — and fewer kids showing up for doctor’s visits — vulnerable children have fewer contacts with adults who are most likely to spot signs of abuse or neglect.

Some school districts have sought to train staff in how to spot potential signs of abuse virtually, in online classes or meetings. In some cases, children’s advocacy centers have tried to reach children in new ways, slipping messages into supply bags or into homework lessons. But there are still limited opportunities for students to disclose that something is wrong at home, Huizar said.

The cases that are surfacing often involve children so severely injured they end up in the emergency room and intensive care unit, as The Washington Post reported in April. Leigh Vinocur, a spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, said doctors nationwide reported treating more serious injuries in a week than they were used to seeing in a month.

The few reports getting through to hotlines often come from victims themselves. Unlike some child protective services and law enforcement, which often rely on mandatory reporters, the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline has seen an uptick in calls, which has continued through the summer. In July, calls, texts and chats to the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline were up 27 percent compared with July 2019. In June, calls, texts and chats were up 32 percent compared with the same month last year.

Earlier in the pandemic, experts anticipated a major spike in child abuse reports as schools planned to reopen in the fall. But across the country, many districts have announced they will be continuing with online-only classes. Other schools that did attempt to reopen have already been forced to close again.

“I am expecting at this point … that our stats are going to remain depressed throughout the fall,” Huizar said.

She said she worries that the longer it takes to reach children, the worse their trauma may become.

“You can sort of think about it as a person getting sicker and sicker before they get treatment,” Huizar said. “I think we’re going to be dealing with kids who are in a fragile condition.”

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