COVID-19’s Hidden Challenge: Spotting Child Abuse When Schools are Closed

Print More
child

Photo by Elizabeth Albert via Flickr

With school closures lasting well beyond the initial two-week quarantine period—in some cases lasting for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year—a worrisome trend has been reported in numerous states: dramatic decreases in child abuse hotline reporting.

Reports have dropped by one-third to one-half in Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania.

It isn’t that there’s less abuse: These declines are observed to be similar to those during the summer months, when mandated reporters—classroom teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses, and others required by law to report suspected abuse—see less of the children they teach or care for.

As both layoffs and alcohol usage climb in the U.S. and families are confined together to comply with stay-at-home orders, the risk of physical, emotional, and sexual violence climbs.

“Stress diminishes a person’s ability to manage their behavior,” says Joe Laramie, Program Manager at the National Criminal Justice Training Center and a retired lieutenant with the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

“The more stress an offender is under, the less able they are to control their behavior.”

Additionally, while the FBI warned of a heightened risk of online technology-assisted exploitation, police and nongovernmental organizations in Southeast Asia have seen the risk turn to reality.

Unlike during summer, children aren’t totally cut off from mandated reporters. For example, Google Classroom—as of 2017, used by 68 percent of U.S. school districts—enables teachers to check in with students, track homework assignments, and even offer group chats with students.

Those are all opportunities to notice behavioral signs of abuse, like diminished school performance or social relationships, or in limited cases, physical evidence such as bruises.

On the other hand, the New York Times reported, some students miss those opportunities to reach out. Factors range from limited access to technology, to the need to care for younger siblings or sick family members while parents work.

Detecting an Abusive Dynamic 

But Laramie says limited access could be one indicator of an abusive dynamic.

“It’s about controlling messages in and out of the home when [the abuser] can’t be with the child all the time,” he explains.

As districts debate e-learning strategies, Victor Vieth, Director of Education and Research at the Zero Abuse Project, says it’s important to remember the way trauma impacts learning.

“Children experiencing trauma … have a hard time concentrating. They don’t get their homework done. They have a harder time gaining [and applying] knowledge,” he explains.

Even in normal learning environments, Rita Farrell, Director of ChildFirst at the Zero Abuse Project, says teachers may not be certain of how to help: “Teachers [are] very passionate about children, and … don’t want to get it wrong.”

Mandated reporter training helps teachers and others to recognize subtler signs of abuse, such as a child’s side comments about yelling, drinking, touching, or inappropriate online contact from someone outside the home.

“Teachers are still seeing kids in a different way, so they might have to look for different signs,” says Jessica Seitz, Director of Public Policy at Missouri KidsFirst.

Training encourages the creation of outlets and opportunities to come forward— what Vieth and Farrell call “a supportive atmosphere,” itself bolstered with boundaries.

Schools’ extensive policies, says Farrell, are already designed for this purpose and can serve as a foundation for online interactions.

For example, principals may not be able to walk the halls and enter classrooms at will, so inviting them to a Zoom class—and recording the session for possible review afterward—can be a good proxy, as can copying another adult on every communication.

Further, says Vieth, “Everybody needs to know the rules, so if a child gets a message at two in the morning, they should know that’s a violation of the rules … and the child [and parent] need to be educated on who [to] report that to.”

Creating a Community ‘Safety Net’

Educators are not the only players critical to mandated reporting. In many communities, school food services workers and bus drivers supply breakfast and lunch to students on meal plans.

Missouri KidsFirst’s #Essential4Kids campaign addresses teachers as well as the general public and “essential workers;” a ZAP tip sheet highlights the importance of, say, grocery employees.

The idea is for more adults to be able to observe child and family dynamics.

“They don’t have to be experts,” says Seitz. “And they don’t have to be sure. They’re not making an accusation.”

That’s the message Seitz brings to her community outreach, which she says requires creativity. For example, she has reached out to trade unions for help in distributing information to essential workers like delivery drivers and grocery workers.

Grocers, says Vieth, can help both detect and prevent abuse. For example, grocery bags could include a pamphlet about stress management, with numbers to call for help.

Both Vieth and Seitz say the training for these mandated reporters needs to be basic.

For example, says Vieth: “A card describing ten potential signs of abuse, five numbers to call, and three additional resources can be helpful, as can [the Child Protector mobile app].”

Mandated reporters may worry whether police and/or social services can still respond to reports during the pandemic, given limited personal protective equipment (PPE).

But Vieth says that in general, most reports are screened out. In these cases, mandated reporters still have options: churches, businesses, or other community members who can help.

“It’s understanding enough about the system to know that when the system breaks down, you have another recourse other than to throw up your hands and say the system fell apart,” says Vieth.

Christa Miller

Christa Miller

With a daily-evolving situation, Seitz adds, refocusing on how to help the community learn to become “a new safety net” has been paramount.

It’s part of what Farrell calls adults’ “moral obligation to protect children”—to notice other people even when social distancing keeps us further apart.

Christa Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in writing about technology and criminal justice, with particular interest in issues related to digital evidence.