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Pandemic Ripped Away Avenues For Reporting Child Abuse

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The Children's Board of Hillsborough County
"The bluest of blue pinwheels" have been put up in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month by the Children's Board of Hillsborough County

Statistics show child abuse reports dropped 18% nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an even steeper fall-off in Florida. But experts say this doesn’t mean there has been a decline in cases.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken away the protection of many safety nets for millions of Americans -- with children particularly affected.

Places that are typically easily accessible for children to be cared for, such as schools, neighborhoods, family gatherings, and other public places are less of an option, leaving compromised children even more vulnerable.

An Associated Press analysis of state data comparing the first nine months of the pandemic -- March to November 2020 -- with the same period a year earlier, showed an 18% decline in both total child welfare concern reports and child abuse and neglect investigations.

But figures from the Florida Department of Children and Families reflected an even more staggering decline. While nearly 15,000 closed cases of child abuse and neglect were reported state-wide in May 2019, those numbers declined to less than 9,000 closed cases a year later.

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Florida Department of Children and Families
Number of Investigations Closed From May 2019 to May 2020

But that dropoff does not mean there is a decline in abuse -- there is just no longer anyone able to report that abuse.

“I don't think there has been a decline, I just don't think it's been a steep rise. And the reason being is because school was either virtual or hybrid and not brick and mortar. So when there are no eyes on the child, you can't really feel secure about those numbers,” said Kelley Parris, Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Children’s Board.

“There's no doubt that with the increased amount of stress on families, that domestic violence and child abuse would have seen an increase during this period of time, there's just no eyes on it.”

A majority of child abuse cases are filed and reported by schools, as the system relies on teachers, police, and doctors to report potential abuse and neglect to Children Protection Services.

Child abuse and neglect reports from school sources took a sharp decline, falling 59% as the United States shifted to online learning.

With April being Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Children’s Board of Hillsbourough County is reminding people of the role that they play as mandatory reporters.

Community partners paired up with the Children’s Board to purchase and distribute parenting caregiver guidebooks to encourage practices that support families in need.

They’re also handing out blue pinwheels.

“We have 1,000 pinwheels up (at our office) representing the number of children that are called into the hotline in Hillsborough County,” said Parris. “And the pinwheels are really the symbol for Child Abuse Prevention Month -- the bluest blue pinwheels and they represent what a healthy, happy child should be like.”

The Children's Board of Hillsborough County
The Children's Board of Hillsborough County
Members of the Children's Board, Kelley Parris, second to the left, hold pinwheels for Child Abuse Prevention Month (2019)

Parris said the Children’s Board provides assistance and comfort to families, which typically helps reduce abuse.

“We provide funding to agencies that provide supports for families, that reduces stress, promotes economic stability, promotes positive discipline, all of those things that helped to prevent child abuse and neglect,” she said.

Parris said there are specific things to look for if you suspect a child is being abused:

  • Wounds or bruises on soft tissue.“That is odd for a child to have bruises on soft tissue without something adverse happening,” she said. “When a child falls, they fall on their knees or elbows.”
  • Look out for scars and wounds and bruises on hidden places such as the small of a child’s back, buttocks, or side.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, some other signs to look out for include:

  • Be excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong
  • Show extremes in behavior (extremely compliant, demanding, passive, aggressive)
  • Be always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen
  • Shy away from touch, flinch at sudden movements, or seem afraid to go home
  • Wear inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days
  • If a child is being emotionally abused in public

Parris reminds people that if they suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, they can report it anonymously. She also suggests gathering as much information and details as possible so that officials can find that child as quickly as possible.

“Children need to tell somebody -- a trusted adult, whether it's your teacher, whether it's a policeman, whether it's a crossing guard at the school, whether it's someone at their church,” said Parris. “Teenagers also need to absolutely confide in a trusted person and get some healthy guidance for getting out of that situation, and get some support for the caregiver or whomever the perpetrator is.”

If you suspect any form of child abuse, please report the information to the Department of Children and Families by calling 1-800-962-2873 or by visiting https://www.myflfamilies.com/service-programs/abuse-hotline/report-online.shtml.

Leali Shalabi is a WUSF/ USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for the spring of 2021.
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