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Experts fear child abuse will increase with coronavirus isolation

People trained to recognize abuse, like teachers and child care workers, are not seeing kids who may be confined to abusive households.
Image: School buses wait to be shipped at the IC of Oklahoma Tulsa Bus Plant in Tulsa
School buses wait to be shipped at the IC of Oklahoma Tulsa Bus Plant in Tulsa, Okla., on March 23, 2020.Nick Oxford / Reuters file

School closures and self-isolation have led to a drop in the number of child abuse cases reported to several state hotlines, worrying experts who say rules intended to halt the spread of coronavirus may be making conditions worse for victims of child abuse trapped at home with their parents.

Hotlines in Colorado, Texas and Illinois and California have received fewer reports of child abuse since stay-at-home orders have been put into place, say experts who attribute the decline to children no longer attending school or day care, where teachers and child care workers are mandated to report suspected abuse.

“We are concerned about this significant drop in calls, particularly because children and youth who may be experiencing abuse and neglect are now home all day and isolated,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the Colorado Office of Children, Youth and Families, in a news release.

In California, the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services said its child protection hotline receives an average of slightly over 4,000 calls a week, but last week it received only 2,661 calls, the agency said in an email.

Teachers, coaches and health care professionals, people trained to recognize child abuse, "are just not seeing these kids,” said Daphne Young, chief communications officer for Childhelp, a child-welfare organization with a national abuse hotline.

Unlike the other hotlines, Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline has seen a 23 percent increase in call and a 263 percent increase in texts compared to March 2019, Young said. With in-person operations limited at child protective services and other government agencies, kids and teens have been texting the hotlines themselves from unsafe homes, she said.

“A lot of these young people are stuck at home with abusers,” Young said. “College kids are coming home from school and have to reenter the home with perpetrators.”

Young said the hotline is receiving calls from parents and family members with coronavirus-specific concerns.

“Like people who have never called us and don’t have abuse in their family but are terrified because ‘my child-care shut down, and I still have to go to work. I’m a nurse, what do I do?’” she said.

The overwhelming volume of calls has put increased pressure on the hotline’s staff and funding, but Young says many school counselors with extra time have been hired to answer calls and texts part-time.

Coronavirus isolation has also led to increased concerns for victims of domestic violence who are being confined to unsafe spaces.

Ruth Glenn, CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said last week that when an abuser has more access to a survivor, it “increases their ability to control and manipulate and act out whatever their abuse is.”

At least one in seven children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year, and at least one in four women have experienced domestic violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.