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Child Abuse Concerns Increasing During Pandemic

Since the coronavirus outbreak there has been a dramatic drop in child abuse reports.

But experts fear actual incidents of abuse are up. With schools being closed it means teachers, coaches, and others who are mandated to report signs of child abuse to state authorities have had limited interaction with children.

In Massachusetts, weekly reports of abuse and neglect to the Department of Children and Families decreased by almost 60 percent since March 15 when schools closed. WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill spoke with Maria Mossaides, the Massachusetts Child Advocate. The child-at-risk hotline is 1-800-792-5200, or in an emergency call 9-1-1.

Traditionally, teachers and early educators are amongst the group of mandated reporters who file the most reports, and that's because they have eye contact with children every single day. And because children often times will say something to a teacher about what's going on in their home. So what we're seeing now is probably larger numbers than the decline that normally happens in the summer months. But one of the differences between this kind of pandemic, where everyone is social distancing and children are not in school, is that in the summertime, children are outdoors playing. So neighbors, camp officials, summer programs, recreational programs, sports programs, also have their eyes on children. And therefore, the Department of Children and Families can rely on mandated reporters who ultimately are the bulk of people who file reports of suspicion of abuse and neglect with the state. So we're seeing a kind of, pretty huge dip. Which tells us that we don't know what's going on in people's houses, because there's such a reliance on mandatory reporters- not just in Massachusetts- but our entire national child welfare system is highly dependent on mandated reporters filing when they suspect abuse and neglect.

And so in the absence of these mandatory reporters, what's happening?

So what we have done, as the Office of the Child Advocate, is that we have- we're working with our state colleagues, asking individuals, and we're working with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as well- for when caseworkers or teachers are currently working with students virtually to sort of ask some additional questions. We know that early childhood educators are reaching out to their clients, a lot of other state programs, early intervention programs, children's who are dealing with- programs that are dealing with children with disabilities. People are still trying to reach out to clients, virtually. And so we've sort of said, across the board, "Ask a couple of questions, both to the child, if the child can answer on their own behalf. But to the family members, ask them how they're feeling. Are they feeling stressed? Do they have any material needs? Do they need food, or clothing, or other support?" And what the state has done is to really beef up our online support services, additional staff have been placed on the 211 hotline. And what we are trying to do is to encourage families, even families who may have never sort of sought state assistance with their, in their own sort of support needs. What we're saying to people is "we understand that in this very unusual circumstances, that family members are stressed". They're stressed by the economics circumstances, they're stressed by the fact that they now have to take care of their children 24/7, without a break. And that the children are oftentimes experiencing a sort of change in their schedule, which may make them a little bit more cranky. So what we're saying to families is, "we really want you to seek help, if you need help". There is telemedicine help available. There's help in terms of behavioral health support, and rather than have your family- something terrible happened to your family, and certainly we know parents don't want to hurt their children- that we're encouraging all families to seek help.

Is the Department of Children and Families, DCF, is it still functioning normally during this crisis?

The Department of Children and Families is operational in the sense that they are receiving reports of abuse and neglect. Investigators are still going out. The after hours line is operating. So all of those sort of 24/7 supports are still there. The traditional periodic visits, it's a- for most families, it's a mandatory monthly visit. But for many families, it's more frequently than a monthly visit. Those visits at the moment are occurring virtually. And if there is a reason why a visit has to be done face to face, then those visits are occurring with PPE, equipment.

What are you asking the public to do?

Assuming that you're keeping socially distance- But call your neighbors with children, ask them if there's anything they need. And if they get a sense that things don't sound right, or that they get a sense that people are really under tremendous amount of stress, then we hope that the neighbors will encourage them to seek help. And if they have serious concerns about any allegation of abuse or neglect, then they really need to call the DCF hotline and allow the professionals to take appropriate action.


The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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