Washington has seen a nearly 50 percent reduction in child abuse intakes since early February, a concerning statistic regarding the state of mandatory reporting in Washington during the coronavirus pandemic.
The End Harm Line, which is run by the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, serves as the state’s child abuse hotline for teachers, law enforcement, nurses and other mandatory reporters legally required to report child abuse and neglect.
Data from DCYF shows that calls to the hotline, and calls that are serious enough for investigation, have both declined over the last two months since coronavirus began to spread in Washington, causing a statewide closure of schools.
School teachers and school resource officers are a primary source for child abuse reporting.
From the first week of February to March 14, the day after Inslee announced statewide schools closures, the hotline averaged 2,496 calls and 992 intakes serious enough for further investigation per week. In the four weeks since, the hotline averaged 1,307 calls and 502 intakes assigned to investigation per week.
“We’ve seen a substantial reduction in intakes overall,” said Debra Johnson, the director of communications for DCYF.
DCYF is still able to connect families to services for rent and food assistance, Johnson said, which can help support families, and likely reduces stress levels. But the reduction in calls to the hotline signals a problem that will linger as long as kids have fewer interactions with mandatory reporters and people outside their family unit.
“Because kids are at home, and because the majority of abuse does happen in the home, kids aren’t necessarily having those connections to trusted individuals anymore,” said Paula Reed, executive director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Washington.
Additionally, parents or caretakers could face increased financial pressure, or other stressors, during this unstable period of time, said Sarah Dewitt, the clinical supervisor for the Children’s Center in Vancouver, which provides mental health services for children and families.
Being confined in a home together can further exacerbate those stressors, particularly if the family has a child with behavioral issues.
“There’s more risk there for families,” Dewitt said. “I think increased stress can trickle down in families to potentially abuse.”
In general, the End Harm Line sees a substantial reduction in calls during school breaks. But child welfare advocates say the reduction in calls right now is different because kids aren’t going to summer camps, or frequently interacting with their friends or their friend’s parents, who can spot and report abuse, or let a mandatory reporter know of abuse.
Reed said advocates across Washington are working to inform and educate essential workers on how to spot and report child abuse. That includes grocery workers, mail delivery workers and garbage collectors. But Reed said the general public needs to play a bigger role in mandatory reporting than it traditionally does.
“It’s a matter of all of us being aware,” she said.
Advocacy centers in Washington, such as the Arthur D. Curtis Children’s Justice Center in downtown Vancouver, have seen a 50 to 80 percent decrease in the number of child abuse referrals, Reed said.
Those referrals, which come from Child Protective Services and law enforcement after a report is screened in, lead to forensic interviews as part of abuse investigation. Amy Russell, the executive director with the Children’s Justice Center, said forensic interviews for the Justice Center held steady for first three months of the year, but recent numbers indicate there might be a decrease in April.
In January, the Center had 36 forensic interviews. It had 30 forensic interviews in both February and March. Slightly past the halfway mark of April, the center has conducted 10 forensic interviews.
“We’re seeing a little bit of an overall drop of cases, but we’re still seeing emergency cases,” she said. “We may be seeing that more kids are at immediate risk of harm than what we were seeing before.”
When students return from a school break, there’s typically an increase of abuse reports, because teachers have eyes on kids again. Reed expects the same thing to happen once school resumes after this indefinite, prolonged hiatus. Areas that were de-prioritized during the pandemic will also add to a surge of work.
“As families and children are able to get out of their homes,” Reed said, “more people will have eyes on them, and we anticipate a big influx of reports.”
Staff writer Katie Gillespie contributed to this story.