Local officials say child abuse is going unreported due to the COVID-19 pandemic
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By Patrick Saunders, contributor
DeKalb County, GA — The number of child abuse reports in DeKalb dropped in half while the number of severe abuse cases increased as distance learning took hold amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The issue has child welfare advocates concerned about the short- and long-term implications of underreporting as the pandemic continues and in-person schooling is suspended indefinitely.
The 50 percent drop in child abuse cases in DeKalb began in the spring, according to Lamar Smith, director of the DeKalb County Division of Family & Children Services.
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“As we see in a drop in child abuse reports, what we have seen as a trend is an increase in more severe physical cases, sexual abuse cases and cases where there’s a perhaps an increase to the factors related to behavioral health and mental health concerns,” Smith told Decaturish.
Smith’s office is devoting more time and resources to respond to the increase in severe cases, including holding webinars and virtual conferences with families and other county residents about engaging families who are isolated.
“We are most concerned when children or families are isolated and we aren’t able to engage when families are in trouble and stress could lead to possible neglect or abuse,” he said.
Teachers are mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, so they are required by law to report suspicions about such treatment. Teachers are the most common mandated reporters, accounting for about 20 percent of all reports in the U.S., according to child abuse scholar Daniel Whitaker.
“So, if teachers are not seeing students in the classroom, they are not going to be able to detect and report suspected abuse or neglect,” he said. “This is really important because we know that most cases of abuse or neglect go unreported, and teachers are one of the primary sources of reports.”
Whitaker is an Associate Dean of Public Health at Georgia State University and director of the National Safecare Training & Research Center, which is housed at GSU.
The pandemic has also forced service providers to connect with families through phone calls or video chats, which may be less effective than in-home visits. Abused children experience a range of negative outcomes, according to Whitaker.
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“These include the immediate consequences of abuse and neglect – physical injury and harm – but also long-term consequences,” he said. “Kids who have been abused or neglected are more likely to have a range of social, psychological and even physical problems later in life. When children experience maltreatment, the chronic stress, sometimes called ‘toxic stress,’ can actually change brain chemistry and interfere with a child’s ability to cope with stressors.”
But balancing the need to get kids back in school as a pandemic rages is beyond tricky.
“There are no good answers here,” Whitaker said. “I do think we have to protect children, families and teachers from COVID-19 first and foremost and I support following the public health guidelines on re-opening. There are a number of resources being developed for practitioners and educators for trying to help families during this time, but mostly we are trying to figure it out on the fly.”
Smith, the DeKalb DFCS director, is committed to working with schools to figure it out.
“We don’t believe this pandemic will go away significantly anytime soon, so how do we pivot to ensure that children can be educated, successful and thrive and be safe in their homes and communities,” he said.
Smith said he plans on meeting with DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris to address the issue.
Watson-Harris advised the DeKalb School Board on Nov. 9 that the district continues distance learning amid another spike in coronavirus cases. No in-person schooling will resume until the spread drops below 100 cases per 100,000 in population.
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