In the first 23 days of April, child-protective workers launched 38 child abuse or neglect investigations, compared with 244 for the full month of April 2019, Merkin said.
She said that relates directly to her agency receiving fewer allegations from the day-care workers, teachers, counselors and medical professionals who are relied upon to see signs of child abuse and report it.
“The people who really keep their eyes on these kids aren’t around them,” Merkin said. “They’re not seeing them every day.”
At the same time, increased stressors of the pandemic — health worries, financial strains — may lead some adults to act out their frustrations. “Families are under stress. Just being out of routine can be very unsettling,” Merkin said.
Montgomery County is Maryland’s largest local jurisdiction, with 1.1 million residents. Residents began staying home in large numbers in the middle of March.
Top officials in Montgomery County launched a public awareness campaign this week to bring attention to the dangers of domestic and family violence during the covid-19 shutdown.
“We want everybody not to be afraid of being home, and we want everyone to feel safe,” County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said during a video news conference Thursday.
Law enforcement officials worry that victims are more vulnerable because they are constantly around potential abusers. The county is stressing that help for victims remains available 24 hours a day and is distributing cards to that effect, said Debbie Feinstein, chief of the Special Victims Division at the Montgomery State’s Attorney’s Office.
For the month of March, the county’s child welfare agency received 1,048 calls to its abuse hotline (240-777-4417), Merkin said. That was fewer than the 1,336 hotline calls received in March 2019.
After receiving the hotline calls, social workers evaluate which ones warrant an investigation and launch those probes within 24 hours, according to Merkin. In the month of March, they launched 185 investigations, compared with 299 in March 2019.
The numbers are even more dramatic this month, a period of full shutdown in the county. For the first 23 days, 375 calls came into the hotline, compared with 1,139 for the full month of April 2019.
In neighboring D.C., police report that sexual assaults — which would include reports of child sex assaults — are down 55 percent since coronavirus shutdowns.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said earlier this month that he fears the numbers for domestic violence — which have remained roughly even — and child abuse incidents are being underreported because victims are unable to call police with their abusers in the house.
“We’re keeping a close eye on those offenses,” Newsham said.
Merkin said she is encouraging teachers and medical professionals who see children through video-meetings to be on the lookout for abuse. She also has asked social service workers who make regular visits to people’s homes to be on the lookout. But she knows the level of observations is far less than typical.
Merkin said that as Maryland opens back up, and children again start being seen by day-care workers, teachers and medical professionals, signs of abuse will rise.
“We do expect absolutely to see an increase,” she said.
As part of Montgomery County’s broader domestic and family violence awareness campaign, the cards officials are distributing that list a phone number to call for help — 240-773-0444 — will be posted near the cash registers of county-owned liquor stores and attached to food packaging from Manna Food Center, a food-distribution organization. The cards will also be attached to food packaging from Giuseppi’s Pizza and Founding Farmers restaurants.
A message also is being printed onto all sales receipts at county-owned liquor stores:
Feel unsafe at home?
Free help is available.
Family Justice Center: 240-773-0444
Crisis Center (24 hrs.): 240-777-4000.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.