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Child abuse hotline calls are down during COVID-19, but abuse fears are up

Child abuse hotline calls are down during COVID-19, but abuse fears are up

(Image by 今心 林 via Pixabay)

James, a gregarious, rambunctious 8-year-old, ended up at the Harbor-UCLA KIDS Hub Clinic in early March for an evaluation of suspected physical abuse, shortly before schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

A call from his teacher uncovered the abuse and likely rescued James and his family from further harm. (His name has been changed to protect his privacy.)

But that may not be happening for other families. Calls to the hotline of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) have plummeted since schools were closed due to the pandemic.

“We have seen a dramatic decline in the number of calls coming into the child protection hotline,” said Roberta Medina, deputy director of DCFS, via email. “With recent closures of schools and non-essential businesses, this safety net is no longer there.”

Since school shuttered, calls to DCFS have dropped by 50%, according to Medina. At the same time last year, the hotline received about 800 to 1,000 calls daily, compared to about 400 per day since the closures.

Medina said that county law enforcement has also seen a nearly 20% decline in electronic reports, which are allegations of suspected abuse reported electronically to the 47 law enforcement agencies in the county. 

“This decline in calls is unprecedented for Los Angeles County,” said Medina, “We are seeing similar trends across the state of California.”

With school closure in all states, calls to the child abuse hotlines have declined across the country, including in some of the seven states that still didn’t have stay-at-home orders by mid-April.

Child health experts fear the stay-at-home directives to save lives from COVID-19 may be risking the lives of vulnerable children who are susceptible to abuse, such as James.  

When James arrived at school, his teacher noticed he was crying and the long, dark reddish-blue bruise on his right arm. James told her that his dad struck him with a belt because he didn’t get out of bed on time to go to school. He also said he was being hit when he didn’t finish his homework.

As a mandated reporter, the teacher notified DCFS and his social worker referred him to the KIDS Hub for an evaluation. The hub is one of seven clinics in Los Angeles County that perform assessments for abuse and provide care for foster children under county supervision. 

James and his parents arrived for his clinic appointment about five days after the incident. By then, the three-inch bruise on his arm had faded to a pale purple color and he could use his arm fully. There was no evidence of other physical injuries, but there were overwhelming concerns for his mental wellbeing. So, he was given a mental health screening.

His parents said James was having problems in school with focus and sitting still. Although his teachers were working with him, his grades were slipping. At home, his parents were struggling with his behavior. He acted out, was easily distracted and couldn’t finish his homework. This school year had been extra challenging. They shared that they had hit him with a belt because they didn’t know what else to do. 

Adding to the family’s stress, James’ father lost his job just before the pandemic, and now no one was hiring. He was worried about supporting his wife and three school-age children.

The clinic team, working with the DCFS social worker, linked James and his family to mental health services and other community programs, including job placement services and resources for food. The family now receives ongoing support from DCFS. 

Fortunately, the stress on James’ family was identified early before irreparably harm had occurred. But this might not have been the case if he weren’t in school, like all the preschoolers and older children now at home for months at a stretch, while their parents juggle making ends meet.

Child protective services 

LA County DCFS is the largest child protective services agency in the United States, with supervision of about 30,000 children per month.

The percent of calls to the abuse hotline from schools is not readily available. However, nationally about 20% of referrals for suspected abuse came from schools in 2018. National data have about a two-year lag before publication, which makes it hard to find real-time information.

Nationwide, about 7.8 million children had referrals were made to child protective services in 2018. 

With the pandemic, infants, young children and teens are isolated at home with parents, who may be under increased stress with the added responsibilities of educating their kids, coping with their own anxiety or other mental health problems, working from home or the economic stress of recent job loss. These stressors are well known risk factors for abuse, and the children have few outside eyes checking on them.  

Alcohol consumption, gun sales and domestic violence reports meanwhile have all increased in recent weeks, which are also risk factors for child abuse. 

Funding for preventing child abuse

 “Many of the preexisting issues for child protective services are being more exposed with this pandemic,” said Christine James-Brown, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America.

She said there are huge differences across the country in how states are supporting foster parents and frontline social workers with additional funding or resources.

“Many states are doing whatever they can do for their workers and their children,” said James-Brown. “But each state is determining where their dollars are going.” 

In response to concerns for child maltreatment and domestic violence, congress earmarked nearly $2 billion for prevention and intervention services as part of the Coronavirus Aid Relief Economic Security Act. The funding includes support for child care programs and Head Start programs to help support low-income families.

On April 13, California Gov. Gavin Newson allocated $42 million to help foster youth and families and to help prevent child abuse. The money will fund social services including social workers completing home visits, information helplines, family resource centers and programs to help at-risk families stay together. The funding provides assistance for all age groups, from infants to foster youth reaching age 21, who would otherwise age out of the system.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the Los Angeles Times that his department is developing a plan with DCFS to perform “welfare checks” on at-risk kids when the officers are on patrol.

During the pandemic, DCFS social workers still make in-person home visits to investigate allegations reported to the hotline — immediately if there are concerns of imminent danger to the child. The social workers are using masks and asking about household members with respiratory symptoms, though field workers have concerns for their own safety

For children already in stable foster placement, routine safety monitoring visits have mostly transitioned to video technology, such as FaceTime, and phone calls. The social workers visit in-person for any urgent concerns for children in foster homes.

James-Brown said the Child Welfare League of America is painfully aware of the loss of monitoring with children not in school. They are working with the child welfare agencies across the country in search of solutions and arranging webinars to train educators about the questions to ask and signs of abuse to look for during their videoconferences with students. 

“This is deeply concerning and it is not an issue for social workers alone,” said DCFS director Bobby Cagle. “In a county of 10 million inhabitants, we need the help of every resident and business owner to prevent child abuse before it happens. We need observant friends, neighbors and extended family to ensure children remain safe at home.”

The full expanse of the effects of this pandemic on the safety and wellbeing of children may not be known for months, even years to come.  

**

Tips for journalists

Local child protection services agencies operate their own hotlines. Despite the time lag in public reporting of the data, they are the best source for data in their jurisdiction. Having an established relationship with your local CPS agency — and not contacting them only when there is a problem — can facilitate communications and possibly early access to data. 

National sources of data include the Child Welfare League of America, the Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau which operates the Child Welfare Information Gateway, as well as the national database of child maltreatment.

Social workers, foster parents, child advocates and child abuse physicians all have groups on social media, however, most professionals’ contracts prohibit talking to the media without prior approval from their agency.

**

Dr. Callahan is a pediatrician and medical director of the KIDS Hub at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She also is the chairperson of the LA County Hub Medical Director workgroup. 

Dr. ChrisAnna Mink is a pediatrician and since 2019, has been the child health reporter for The Modesto Bee as a corps member with Report for America. Most of her medical career was spent caring for the underserved, including more than two decades at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. 

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