Investigations

Experts say the COVID pandemic is a “perfect storm” for child maltreatment. High unemployment, widespread social isolation, and rising rates of substance abuse are risk factors for child abuse and neglect. 

But reports of suspected child maltreatment in Kentucky have dropped dramatically since March. 

Child welfare advocates think that might be bad news. Due to social distancing policies prompted by the pandemic, children aren’t being seen by as many of the teachers, coaches, nurses, doctors and neighbors who typically notice and report signs of abuse. Some advocates are worried maltreatment could be increasing and the full extent of the problem might not be known for months or even years.

“It is not hyperbolic to theorize that given the stress, pressure and attendant trauma that many parents are experiencing these days, that the potential emphasis on ‘potential’ for even more abuse is very much in play,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Graham Ambrose | wfpl.org

Between March and July, the state received 28,218 reports of suspected child maltreatment. That’s a 29% reduction from those same four months in 2019, according to data from Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and 42% lower than 2017. 

Yet the number of victims reporting their own maltreatment to the state increased from last year, suggesting the actual incidence of child maltreatment might not be declining. 

Melissa Currie is a forensic pediatrician at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, where she works with Kentucky children to identify abuse cases. Her team saw “dramatically fewer” cases early in the pandemic, though case numbers have ticked upward over the last few months. 

Currie is skeptical that the dropoff in suspected child maltreatment reports means less abuse is happening. In the last several weeks, she and her team have seen a slight rise in severe cases requiring hospitalization. 

“If indeed abuse were going down, then we should also see a drop in the most severe cases,” Currie said. “We are seeing a steady if not slightly increased number of the severe cases. What that tells me is that abuse is still happening, and it’s still happening at the same rate or maybe a little more than it used to.”

Under Kentucky law, individuals who have “reasonable cause” to believe a child is abused or neglected must report that information to officials. Reports are investigated by the Department for Community Based Services and can result in criminal investigation, arrest, and prosecution.

Most of the drop-off in reporting came from schools, which closed statewide in mid-March. After districts transitioned to remote learning, students participated in academic work by filling out paper packets, attending online video conferences, or simply texting their teachers. For thousands of children, remote learning meant less supervision.

Grha

Between March and July, school personnel submitted 71% fewer reports of suspected child maltreatment than over the same four months in 2019, according to the data. That’s a drop from more than 7,000 reports down to just 2,068 reports this year. 

“For many kids, that’s their safe space. They might have a chaotic home life, but at school there’s routines and people who care about them,” said Jennifer Baumer Gerber, a middle school teacher in Shelby County. “It definitely weighs on you.”

Another concern is domestic violence. Shannon Moody, senior policy and advocacy director at Kentucky Youth Advocates, said there’s been a marked increase in domestic violence in Kentucky during the pandemic. “Even if a kid isn’t experiencing physical abuse, witnessing abuse is a trauma for them,” she said.  

Between March and May, the Center for Women and Families in Louisville received 30% fewer crisis calls than they received last year related to domestic violence and sexual assault. In the spring, “people were just trying to bide their time and stay safe,” explained Elizabeth Wessels-Martin, the Center’s president and CEO.

But as businesses began re-opening and perpetrators returned to work, victims of abuse started to seek help causing the number of intakes in the emergency shelter to “skyrocket,” Wessels-Martin said.

One sign of families and children in distress are calls for temporary shelter. United Way data of 211 calls for adults, children and families seeking temporary housing show a dropoff in some regions. Although such shelter requests don’t always involve children and can reflect a number of adverse circumstances such as weather emergencies or illness, as well as abuse and violence it’s one indication of possible family adversity.

Between March and July, calls for temporary shelter were 50% higher in the Southern Kentucky region and 32% higher in the Bluegrass Region of central Kentucky than over the same months last year, according to data from United Way. In the Metro region around Louisville, the United Way received nearly a third fewer calls for shelter. 

Allegations of suspected child maltreatment from law enforcement and courts typically the largest source of reports dropped a relatively modest 14% in 2020. Reports from anonymous sources dropped 27%, while reports from friends, neighbors and non-relatives dropped 15% from last year.

In response to questions, Susan Dunlap, a spokesperson for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said recent child abuse reporting is “consistent with this time last year.”She said the springtime reporting decline was affected by social isolation guidelines, and pointed out, while mandatory reporting laws bring more tips, her agency substantiates fewer than 50% of them.

Fall Reprieve No Guarantee

Typically, when children return to school in the fall, reports of suspected maltreatment spike. But as the second wave of COVID infections swells in Kentucky, institutions that typically watch out for children might remain shuttered or close again, prolonging the information brownout. 

Experts say there’s no easy solution, since the problem is a consequence of social distancing policies intended to keep adults and children safe from the coronavirus. 

Currie, the forensic pediatrician, suggested individuals and institutions use video conference technology to put more eyes on children. For example, instead of checking in by phone, individuals and their institutions should use video calls as much as possible, she said.

The Department for Community Based Services has been conducting monthly caseworker visits with children and families by videoconferencing. But at many schools, students “participated” in remote learning without needing to see or even speak by phone to a teacher

Individuals can also make a difference by checking in on relatives and friends. Without individual effort, ongoing child maltreatment might continue.

“I don’t think we’ll have a full answer until kids come back into centers and agencies and schools,” said Moody. “And even then we might not know.”

To report child abuse or neglect, call one of several toll-free numbers: (877) 597-2331; (877) KYSAFE1; or (800) 752-6200. Reports can also be filed online at prdweb.chfs.ky.gov/ReportAbuse/, which is monitored during business hours on weekdays.

In case of an emergency, call 911.

Graham Ambrose is an investigative reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. He is a Report for America corps member.