Teachers and other adults in schools are required to report any potential abuse. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

School closures mean more child abuse is going unreported

Advocates seeing more severe incidents as families struggle with stress of staying home

Child abuse is going unreported this month due to school closures and worsening in frequency and severity as families experience heightened stress and children become less able to leave their homes, child welfare advocates said.

“We’re seeing kids stuck at home alone with abusers,” said Daphne Young, chief communications officer of Childhelp, which she said was the longest-running and largest national nonprofit against child abuse. “They don’t have their meetings, routines or connections with others. They’re stuck without that mental health outreach that they’ve relied on to stay safe and secure.”

Childhelp’s community hotline has fielded 20% more calls, texts and chat messages since school districts nationwide began closing in recent weeks, and the numbers appear to be increasing, Young said.

Meanwhile, the teachers and other educational professionals who are required to report child abuse with Child Protective Services have largely taken their eyes off of students due to school closures. As a result, CPS child abuse reports have fallen significantly in jurisdictions across California, signaling that abuse is going largely unreported, said Katie Albright, CEO of Safe and Sound, formerly the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center.

CPS hotline calls have decreased by around 42% to 55% in multiple states since schools began closing, Albright said. The San Francisco Human Services Agency did not have local data available at press time, while Albright cited both national press reports and reports from local agencies across the U.S.

The decline in reporting is accompanied by child abuse that appears to be worsening on different fronts as the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic squeezes both families and the nonprofits and support groups that assist them and children.

“You’re seeing an increase in the severity of the cases,” Albright said. “Family stress and child isolation are significant risk factors of child abuse. In this time of deep anxiety, the coronavirus is significantly magnifying that kind of stress.”

Family members already stressed or living with mental health issues are increasingly lashing out against children as emotions escalate under quarantine, Young said.

Now more than ever, advocates and officials are urging members of the public to report child abuse where suspected through the CPS or community hotlines. Advocates are also asking the public to donate to nonprofits that support families and children so they can stay afloat.

“When you support families, you protect kids,” Albright said.

SFHSA has partnered with the 26 family resource centers citywide for remote family and child provisions that include crisis counseling, virtual visitation with children in foster care, education in parenting as well as family support, said Chandra Johnson, director of communications for SFHSA.

The San Francisco Unified School District is providing families resources remotely through its social workers, counselors, nurses, wellness centers and partnerships with community organizations, said Kevin Gogin, director of Safety and Wellness in SFUSD’s School Health Programs Department.

“Every day we learn better ways to access our students,” Gogin said. “It’s difficult for us to access students. It’s difficult for students to not be able to play with their friends to have student contact. So we’re just trying to find ways to make it work, to be successful at reaching students so we can get them the resources they need, whether it be video chats, phone conversations with families or individual students. We’re working every avenue that we can find.”

Meanwhile, nonprofits that support families and children are struggling to get by because their revenue largely depends on events that are now canceled and donors who are now hard-pressed to give. For example, Safe and Sound had to postpone an event until fall that would have drawn 10% of its revenue from more than 800 community members in April for Child Abuse Prevention Month, while some nonprofits are seeing half of their funding delayed, Albright said.

She said nonprofits are experiencing shortages of diapers, baby formula and personal hygiene products, and community organizations like food banks especially need volunteers now that workers who are vulnerable to COVID-19 need to quarantine.

“Child abuse doesn’t sleep for a pandemic. We don’t get to take that time off,” said Young, whose nonprofit is based in Arizona but offers intervention, treatment and prevention services nationally. “Right now shoring up these agencies is critical. We are working overtime, short staff, trying to take care of these kids, and we are kind of on our own right now.”

The National Child Abuse Coalition is collaborating with child welfare organizations to send a letter to Congress urging funding for local and state systems that prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect, said Ruth Friedman, the coalition’s executive director. Children, whose brains are especially vulnerable to development, are taking the brunt of numerous impacts, advocates say.

As working parents and caregivers turn to new childcare providers with the closure of schools, some providers are turning out to be abusive, Young said. Meanwhile, the children of those who work without childcare are being neglected, Albright said.

Young and Albright also expect that children will experience more trauma with the recent rise in cases of domestic violence due to stay-in-place orders.

Child visitation services have also been temporarily suspended at Rally Family Visitation Services, a program based in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties that allows parents who are normally restricted by the family court from seeing their children to do so through supervised visitation.

Program Director Sonia Melara said the program will continue once able to provide remote services. However, she worries that in the meantime, parents desperate to see their children might do so illegally by coercing their partners.

All this while the stay-in-place orders have suspended in-person support groups that provide a safety network for victims and survivors of child abuse.

“You take away routine, add an enormous stressor and scary thing in the universe that brings up trauma, then all the mental health services and groups shut down,” Young said. “And then they isolate at home, with their fears, with no one to connect with … We’re getting a lot of calls at night because people are stuck at home. They’re stressing. They’re remembering.”

You can call the local CPS hotline at (800) 856-5553. Safe and Sound’s community hotline is (415) 441-KIDS.

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