Watching for signs of child abuse and neglect, but from a distance

With many schools and even doctor’s appointments virtual again, teachers and others must try new strategies to assess how safe a home situation might be.

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In this March 31, 2020 file photo, a child rides a scooter past barricades at an entrance to Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

In this March 31, 2020 file photo, a child rides a scooter past barricades at an entrance to Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Reports of child abuse and neglect have declined significantly since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s not an indicator of fewer incidents, child and family services professionals say. Rather, it’s a sign that abuse and neglect could be flying under the radar in distanced schooling environments.

When hybrid learning began in some schools in the fall, the number of calls to hotlines to report child abuse and neglect increased slightly. But professionals are concerned those numbers will dip again during a COVID-19 surge that has forced many schools to return to virtual learning.

So now, child and family services agencies hope to educate anyone who works with children and members of the community about how to prevent abuse and neglect — and how to spot the red flags even given the current unusual circumstances.

“Our worry overall is that families who might need us or might need our interventions aren’t necessarily coming to our attention because not many of them are being seen by school professionals, let’s just say,” said Nancy Carre-Lee, deputy director of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.

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During the early days of the pandemic, there was close to a 50% reduction in child abuse and neglect reporting in New Jersey, which Carre-Lee contributes to the shift to online learning.

The hotline began to normalize somewhat when schools transitioned to a hybrid model in the fall, but it’s still lagging behind the normal call volume.

“We anticipate even though there was an uptick in September and October, we do anticipate there will be yet another reduction in calls, because most schools are now going back to their remote classes,” Carre-Lee said.

Spotting the signs from a distance

Officials in Delaware hope their work informing educators about how to spot the red flags of abuse and neglect over virtual settings will prevent problem situations from going unaddressed.

The state faced a 35% to 40% reduction in calls to its child abuse and neglect hotline during the beginning of the pandemic. Reports from educators dropped the most significantly — by 89% in April and 85% in May.

“In the early stage of the pandemic, all schools were moved to remote learning, so there was no interaction between students and teachers and school nurses and counselors,” said Delaware Division of Family Services director Trenee Parker.

There was also a reduction in reports from law enforcement and members of the public, and calls from health care professionals decreased by 29% in April and 34% in May.

“Pediatricians were not doing well visits. There was a focus on urgent care needs. So that was another group of people who weren’t having regular contact with children,” Parker said.

Delaware’s Division of Family Services has experienced a rebound in calls, partly due to hybrid learning in schools.

“While students might not be in the classroom five days a week, there was a rotational schedule of students coming in, particularly younger students. So there became more awareness of what was happening in the day-to-day lives of these children,” Parker said.

But the division’s hotline still receives 20% fewer calls than prior to the pandemic. And on Thursday, Gov. John Carney urged schools to “pause” in-person learning starting Dec. 14, and not return to hybrid learning until Jan. 11.

To offset the effects of decreased interaction between children, the community and professionals, the division issued a guide several weeks ago to educators that provide tips for spotting abuse and neglect virtually.

That includes suggesting teachers assign students to write about the activities they did the day before school and to pay attention to the details in the students’ descriptions. Educators are encouraged to ask questions like, “How did you sleep last night?” and “What did you have for breakfast?” They’re also asked to pay attention if a student complains of soreness during virtual classes, to take note of behavior changes, and to keep their eyes and ears open for signs of abuse, like yelling, during virtual classes.

The agency also is helping families gain access to social services during a time of separation.

“One of the concerns we had, particularly for our teenage youth, is trying to negate that feeling of isolation, making sure they have connections to friends, making sure they have connections to providers in the mental health community if they need it,” Parker said.

“Our prevention and behavioral health team did a lot to pivot their business models to make counselors and therapists more accessible to youth, even via texting. The best thing we can do to keep children safe is to support families, and the way to support families is providing them with knowledge, letting them know what is out there.”

In Philadelphia, the city’s Department of Human Services created a guide to help teachers, members of the community and families protect children and their caregivers during this time of isolation.

Those working with families are encouraged to ask parents and caregivers if they’re safe and if they’re in need of anything, such as food, clothing, housing or medical care. They should also ask about their well-being, their activities, and if they’ve noticed changes in their child’s behavior.

The guide suggests those who work with children ask kids how they’re feeling if they have any worries or fears, and who takes care of them at home. They should also ask children what they do for fun if they miss in-person school and why, what rules are imposed at home, and what activities they do at home.

The guide isn’t limited to professionals who work with kids. It also offers advice to parents and caretakers about taking care of their own mental and emotional well-being, such as giving themselves a “time-out.” If parents feel angry, the guide advises them on breathing techniques and encourages them to call friends for emotional support.

In June, there were 24% fewer reports to Philadelphia’s DHS and 12% fewer investigations than a year prior. The number of hotline reports per month dropped 43% from March to April. While hotline reports have increased slightly since April, there has been an average of 60 reports per day since March, compared to 100 reports per day in 2019 during the same time period.

As in other parts of this region, Philadelphia officials contribute the drop in reports to virtual learning, as well as a reduction in doctors’ visits.

“Many of the teachers and school administrators aren’t seeing the children in person, and it’s hard for them to assess any type of abuse [virtually] that they may have seen or assessed in the past,” said Sam Harrison, deputy commissioner at Philadelphia DHS. “And the same with doctors, hospitals, primary care physicians —  there’s an uptick in telemedicine, and it’s not necessarily the same as an in-person assessment that can be done.”

Now more than ever, he said, it’s important that members of the community help ensure that children and families get the help they need.

“It now becomes incumbent upon the community to watch out for each other,” Harrison said. “If the families are struggling, if caregivers are having a hard time with children, can their neighbor step up and be of help?”

Supporting families to prevent child abuse

New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency launched a social distancing campaign to raise awareness about child abuse and domestic violence and other dangers facing people who are homebound. The campaign includes web resources for families and others, as well as hotline numbers and other contacts.

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The agency is using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to reach at-risk families with information about social services, mental health assistance, food assistance, child care and other helpful state and federal programs, such as the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ rental and housing assistance, child care subsidies and utility assistance.

“We know they’re struggling probably now more than ever. Some of our families have lost work or work hours, there’s housing insecurity and food insecurity, and remote learning for some parents often is causing a lot of stress and concerns,” Carre-Lee said. “So these factors can contribute to instances of abuse. But together with our partners we’re raising awareness and sharing with our stakeholders and the general public information about what child abuse is and what it isn’t.”

She said prevention is key when it comes to addressing child abuse and neglect. There are several initiatives in place to alleviate various stresses on parents and caregivers, which in turn can create safer environments for children, Carre-Lee said.

Counties in New Jersey have Family Success Centers, which she describes as “one-stop family neighborhood centers.” Families don’t need to be involved with child protective services to have access to these centers, which can help families get clothing or provide access to computers to parents working on resumes and applying for jobs.

Harrison, of Philadelphia DHS, agreed that the nature of the pandemic places increased stress on families, especially those who are already disenfranchised.

“The bottom line is we know that families are stressed out economically — and when you’re in this type of economic situation, it puts more pressure on communities that were already struggling with poverty and a lack of resources,” he said. “The focus should be on connecting families with mental health and primary health care, and making sure that these families have the support they need to maintain their child’s education.”

One Philadelphia initiative that aims to relieve stress on families is the creation of access centers, which provide children with the resources needed to continue their education virtually, such as access to the internet when they don’t have Wi-Fi at home. (Some of those centers have had to close down because of the spread of COVID-19.)

In addition, some food banks are centered in community schools, which provides school staff and teachers the opportunity to see some students for a short time.

When in doubt, call the hotline, professionals say

States and cities in this region have toll-free hotlines available 24 hours a day to report suspected child abuse and neglect, and members of the public can report anonymously.

“Across the nation, I have no doubt there are incidents of child abuse and neglect that go unreported for a number of reasons. Sometimes, the public doesn’t know how to report; sometimes, there’s a fear of reporting. So one of the things we strive to do is make sure the public knows how to report,” said Parker, from the Delaware Division of Family Services.

“We want to make sure everyone sees child safety and family well-being as being you’re a part of the global community. There’s this concept — ’a mandatory reporter.’ And really, what we’re trying to move toward is thinking about ‘mandatory supporters.’ We all know things happen that we have to be notified about. But our hope is it’s done in a way to help us improve the family to make sure the child is safe.”

Professionals say that making a report does not mean it’s punitive. If a neighbor or loved one is unsure whether a child is being abused or neglected, a hotline screener can evaluate the situation.

Child abuse is defined as physical, sexual or emotional harm to a child under the age of 18, caused by a parent or someone who is left in the capacity to care for the child. Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to provide proper supervision for a child, or basic needs like adequate food, shelter, education or medical care.

“You don’t have to know or have proof, you just have to have a suspicion or reasonable cause to believe a child is being abused or neglected,” New Jersey’s Carre-Lee said. “If you’re hesitant because you don’t understand, just call the hotline, they’re there and will help you walk through if the concern you have rises to the level of abuse or neglect.”

Though child and family services agencies may receive fewer reports during the pandemic, they are still visiting families. Philadelphia’s DHS is required to transition to a hybrid model over the next six weeks. While the department will meet families virtually, it will continue conducting in-person visits when new cases are reported.

“We understand the safety of children is important, and our staff are deemed to be essential so at least that first layer within the department, that’s still business as usual,” Harrison said.

How to report possible abuse

  • In Delaware, call 800-292-9582 or make a report online.
  • In New Jersey, call 1-877-652-2873.
  • In Pennsylvania, call 215-683-6100 for Philadelphia’s hotline; 800-932-0313 is the statewide hotline number.

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