According to most recent CDC statistics, an estimated 1 in 4 children in America experience maltreatment at some point in their lives. York Daily Record
On paper, the number of children being abused and neglected in Pennsylvania appears to be going down as the state reckons with a deadly viral outbreak. If only that were true.
Fewer suspected cases are being reported to the state’s abuse hotline, but child welfare advocates say the decline is artificial and harbors a grim reality: Amid a global pandemic that has killed tens of thousands — and shuttered schools, daycares and other social services — more Pennsylvania children are likely suffering from abuse.
“The reality is, incidences will likely be on the rise,” said Abbie Newman, chief executive officer of the state advocacy organization Mission Kids. “We know that additional strain and stress on families during this crisis puts children at an increased risk of abuse.”
Between late February and mid-March, as Pennsylvanians’ daily lives contracted under closures and cancellations, hotline tips to Pennsylvania’s 24-hour hotline fell from 17,693 calls to 9,068, according to data provided by the state Department of Human Services.
The hotline received 3,284 phone calls between March 11 and March 17, after Governor Wolf ordered all schools to close. But during that same week in February, received 4,121 calls.
Out of school, fewer reports
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Child welfare workers recognize this pattern. They see the same drop in numbers each summer when schools are out and there are fewer teachers and day care workers watching over children and alerting officials to possible abuse, Newman said.
But the coronavirus pandemic will likely aggravate the problem, and not just because cases will be underreported, but because the mental and economic strain on parents and guardians could manifest in abuse directed at children.
And social isolation, undertaken to combat the virus, may have the unintended consequence of concealing warning signs from the outside world.
Teachers, administrators, school counselors and other educational professionals report one in every five child-mistreatment claims in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other major sources include law enforcement and social workers.
“Our experience is that the majority of reporting is coming from the schools,” Newman said, “with children disclosing either to their teacher or school-based therapist or trusted adult in that environment.”
Trapped in their homes with the increased stress of health risks, layoffs and food insecurity, abusers are more prone to violence, said Dr. Lisa Pion-Berlin, president and CEO of Parents Anonymous Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child abuse through mutual support groups for parents.
Calls to the group’s National Parent Helpline for families in crisis have spiked in the past week, Pion-Berlin said.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO.
Tana Bortner describes the day her children were taken away by family services, and the lingering trauma of a six month open case of child abuse. York Daily Record
‘Child welfare workers are really first responders’
With schools closed, children with injuries are less likely to be spotted. And with a virus that spreads from person to person, the state’s child welfare workers are forced to decide: Should they cancel face-to-face visits and risk a child’s safety, or continue them and risk their own?
State agencies tasked with investigating complaints and keeping kids safe have scaled back services to slow the spread of the pandemic.
In critical cases, protective services workers are still visiting homes so they can see children in person, Newman said, but more and more of their work is being shifted to online interviews and remote enforcement.
Some services simply must continue in person, Newman said.
“There are no alternate methods for child abuse investigations – you have to see the child, and if the child is verbal, ask him or her questions,” Newman said.
Meanwhile, other tasks, like monthly check-ins with families, can be conducted online via video conference. But advocates say remote services can be less effective — caseworkers could miss a bruise or other warning sign.
Advocates are also worried that the number of people willing to foster may decline as families worry about bringing new children into their homes. And a slow-down in Pennsylvania courts may also halt critical family law proceedings, like adoptions and reunifications that require a judge’s approval.
“The safety of our most vulnerable children should be first and foremost — this situation just puts them more at risk,” Newman said. “Child welfare workers are really first responders and we need our child welfare workforce now more than ever.”
Now here are some tips for recognizing and reporting abuse Kristin Houser, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape; and Cathy Utz, the deputy secretary for the state office of children, youth and families.
Warning signs of abuse
Look for these indicators of abuse:
- Unexplained injuries
- Unbelievable or inconsistent explanations of injuries
- Bruises that resemble objects such as a hand, fist, belt buckle, or rope
- Injuries that are inconsistent with a child’s age/developmental level
- Sleep disturbances
- Bed wetting
- Pain or irritation in genital/anal area Difficulty walking or sitting
- Difficultly urinating
- Positive testing for sexually transmitted disease or HIV
- Source: PA Dept. of Human Services
- Fear of going home
- Extreme apprehensiveness/vigilance
- Pronounced aggression or passivity
- Flinches easily or avoids being touched
- Play includes abusive behavior or talk
- Unable to recall how injuries occurred or account of injuries is inconsistent with the nature of the injuries
- Fear of parent or caregiver
- Expressing feelings of inadequacy
- Fearful of trying new things
- Overly compliant
- Poor peer relationships
- Excessive dependence on adults
- Habit disorders (sucking, rocking, etc.)
- Eating disorders
How to report abuse
You should make a report anytime you suspect a child is the victim of abuse.
- Call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313. Trained specialists are available 24/7 to receive referrals of suspected child abuse and general child well-being concerns.
- Mandated reporters in the state of Pennsylvania can also file a report online, at Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare Portal.
Parents in need of talk support can call the National Parent Helpline at 1-855-427-2736 or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. To report child abuse or neglect, contact law enforcement or child protective services in your county.
Sam Ruland is the Pennsylvania issues reporter for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network, covering all aspects of life in Pennsylvania. Contact her at email@example.com, 717-654-8779 and follow her on Twitter @sam_ruland.
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