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Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable U.S. children could face a heightened risk of abuse and neglect as coronavirus-related school closures keep them at home and away from the nation’s biggest group of hotline tipsters — educators.
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.
Those reports could plummet, experts predict, as children’s social circles contract to just family members, which collectively represent just 12 percent of hotline calls.
Even kids in otherwise functional families could face peril as parents unaccustomed to providing round-the-clock care and stressed by the collapsing economy are pushed to the edge.
Some experts, like Sophie Phillips, chief executive officer of TexProtects, a Texas-based child abuse prevention advocacy group, fear that parents still required to work outside the home may leave young children on their own.
Meanwhile, state agencies tasked with investigating complaints and keeping kids safe have scaled back services to slow the spread of the pandemic. In Florida, some child protection groups have turned to virtual home visits instead of in-person check-ins.
“I think we are going to see more cases of child abuse,” said Lisa Pion-Berlin, president and CEO of Parents Anonymous, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides coaching and support to parents.
Calls to the group’s National Parent Helpline for families in crisis have spiked 30% in the past week, Pion-Berlin said. They’re coming from mothers and fathers stressed about child care, food insecurity and other issues arising from the coronavirus crisis.
The National Child Abuse Hotline also has seen a 10% surge this week in calls and texts, said spokeswoman Daphne Young. Rather than reporting abuse, however, some of the callers are anxious parents seeking help with child care and frightened children stuck at home with their abusers, Young said.
“We don’t want this health pandemic to become an abuse pandemic,” Young said.
Child protective service agencies across the U.S. received 4.3 million reports alleging abuse and neglect of 7.8 million children in 2018 alone, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Of those children, nearly 678,000 were determined to indeed be victims. Most suffered from neglect; the rest from various types of physical harm, the agency said.
Risk factors for child abuse and neglect — including parental stress, economic instability and housing insecurity — increase in situations like this, according to Dr. Melissa Merrick, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America.
“School and workplace closings greatly increase stress in parents’ lives,” Merrick said, adding that children with existing behavioral issues are prone to act out as their parents’ tension levels rise.
Of youth who are sexually abused, 90% know the perpetrator, said Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children's Advocacy Center. Staying home could make those children more vulnerable.
In Texas, where the law requires anyone who suspects child abuse to notify authorities, teachers are the single largest group of reporters, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services data shows.
The state’s abuse hotline received 297,411 reports of suspected child abuse in fiscal year 2019 — and 66,737 of them came from teachers.
Karen Weinrich, a second-grade teacher at Spruce Creek Elementary in Port Orange, Florida, said she worries about the well-being of some of her students who face food shortages, and one in particular who lacks adequate supervision.
“He’s going to be on his own for who knows how long,” Weinrich said. “We don’t necessarily know what’s going on in those houses.”
Medical professionals and child advocates offered several stress-relief tips for families stuck at home.
Dr. Robert Sege, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Community-Engaged Medicine at Tufts Medical Center’s Floating Hospital for Children, suggests phoning or video chatting with parents and kids who are isolated or struggling.
Newlin, of the National Children's Advocacy Center, recommends crafting a new family schedule that provides structure. Eating breakfast at a certain time every day, for example, can bring a sense of normalcy. Good sleep, nutrition, exercise and social interaction with friends through technology is also helpful.
"It's important for parents not to be exposing their kids to crisis, crisis, crisis, crisis," he said. "What they hear is, 'Oh my God, am I gonna die?'"
Merrick, of Prevent Child Abuse America, said parents should find ways to make social connections — such as virtual play dates — and take a breather, even if it’s just stepping out on the patio for a few minutes.
That may mean being more flexible on things like screen time. Parents may need to let kids watch movies all day sometimes, she said. “Don’t feel guilty about it.”
Child welfare officials say they have a plan for keeping tabs on children who already are on the state’s radar.
In Florida, where a hurricane-riddled history has necessitated disaster preparedness, social workers are conducting virtual visits — required every 30 days at minimum.
But for now that’s only an option in low-risk cases, said Nadereh Salim, CEO of Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit agency that contracts with the Florida Department of Children and Families to provide child welfare services in the Fort Myers area.
Case managers who sense a child is in danger will arrange to speak with the child outside of the home, perhaps in the yard and out of earshot from caregivers.
They may ask caregivers to do a walk-through of their home environment during a FaceTime or Skype call. They bring along extra diapers, toys, books and gift cards for those in need.
“We want to be creative but not compromise safety,” Salim said, noting that she has reached out to inactive-yet-certified case managers who can step in if frontline workers fall ill.
Ohio, too, asked children’s services workers to prioritize visits that involve immediate child safety and continue to do them in person, while checking in on lower risk cases via video conference.
But children who have not yet come to social workers’ attention remain at higher risk.
Phillips, the TexProtects CEO, advised people to take an active role in monitoring child safety in their communities.
"During this time,” Phillips said, “I think everyone needs to have a more watchful eye on children if you suspect anything is wrong.”
Parents in need of talk support can call the National Parent Helpline at 1-855-427-2736 or the 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.