Child abuse reports are down during the pandemic. Experts say that’s a bad sign

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A sign with corrected spelling, tells visitors the playground at the Community Park is closed until further notice due to COVID-19, March 27, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

(CNN) — A drop in child abuse would usually be welcome news — but with schools closed and kids at home, experts believe that the recent decline in calls to child abuse and neglect hotlines might really mean more cases are going unnoticed.

Figures provided to CNN from states across the country show considerable drops in child abuse reports as social distancing measures have kept people home and kids out of sight.

In Massachusetts alone, reports of alleged child abuse dropped almost 55% from 2,124 in the first week of March to just 972 by the last full week in April, according to data provided by the state.

Compared to last year, Connecticut, California, Michigan, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Louisiana have all seen double-digit percentage drops as they’ve implemented their own stay-home orders.

Teachers, coaches and other adults who interact with children and are legally required to report signs of abuse can’t always see red flags over Zoom or other remote connections — if they’re able to get in touch with at-risk kids at all.

And kids who are at-risk are less able to signal distress if their abusers are in the background of calls.

“When children are no longer visible to the vast majority of people who are trained and required to report, and then you see this kind of decline, we get super concerned,” said Melissa Jonson-Reid, a professor of social work research at Washington University in St. Louis.

Children’s advocates say they’re also having a harder time finding ways to intervene before abuse starts in at-risk families. Paula Wolfteich, intervention and clinical director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, told CNN that mitigation measures have hampered their contact with at-risk families and handicapped the organization’s ability to help.

“The kids that we normally can see and support and — and families that we can support, our hands are tied and we’re unable to do that as well as we usually do,” she said.

Wolfteich said because families are “sort of on lockdown and isolated,” her organization has seen a stream of reports including “substance abuse involvement, there’s domestic violence in the home and then, you know, physical abuse is going on.”

The strains on families are only rising as financial hardships grow for millions of Americans.

The US lost 20.5 million jobs in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — by far the most sudden and largest decline since the government began tracking the data in 1939.

Anna Gassman-Pines, a Duke University professor whose expertise includes the effects of unemployment on children, told CNN that this kind of financial strain will likely have an outsized impact on already at-risk children.

“In very stressed communities where there have been a lot of job losses — even the families where the adults have managed to maintain employment — that community has an increased risk for child maltreatment because of concerns of everyone in that community about uncertainty around their jobs, feelings of instability, worry about the future,” she said.

“Or it may even be that those who remain employed have less earnings,” she said. “So there are a lot of reasons why, in communities that have been particularly hard hit by job losses, that increases the risk for everyone in that community.”

Rates of reported child neglect, for example, increased by 24.28% between 2007 and 2009 during the Great Recession, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

National figures on child abuse and neglect reports related to the coronavirus will be collected by HHS as part of the federal fiscal year 2020, which ends on September 30 — but that data isn’t due to be publicly released until January 2022.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted an unprecedented shutdown that has taken kids out of sight in a way that experts and advocates haven’t seen before. Nadine Burke Harris, the surgeon general of California and a pediatrician with expertise in childhood trauma, described to CNN the challenge of issuing public health directives while balancing competing interests.

“Well, you know certainly when we’re thinking about the remain-at-home order we are thinking about all of these things. We’re thinking about the economic impact, right, we’re thinking about these stress-related secondary impacts. We’re thinking about safety and well-being and looking at the death toll related to the — the virus,” she said. “So all of this is being considered.”

Jonson-Reid stressed the particular dangers facing young children, like a lack of knowledge about the resources they can use for relief.

“They have to know that there’s the possibility of assistance,” she said. “And you can imagine it would be pretty scary to just sort of get on a phone and call some stranger to ask for help when no one has ever mentioned that that’s even possible.”

In recent weeks, some Democratic lawmakers have pushed for emergency funding for the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act — one of the few federal child welfare programs that help fund state initiatives to respond and prevent child neglect and abuse.

“Investing in programs that support families and keep children safe is more important than ever,” said an April letter to Senate leadership signed by Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and others.

“Existing federal programs with infrastructure and expertise are already in place to address these challenges,” said the letter. “However, they currently lack the financial support to effectively combat the new challenges presented by this crisis.”

Jonson-Reid hopes lawmakers will “use this time to see the strain that we’re putting on families during the pandemic” and take steps to invest in child welfare programs.

The outbreak, she posited, is a time to “not just prepare to go back to business as usual, but to say, ‘This is a time to invest in our families,’ so that we are saving these long-term costs related to delinquency, educational outcomes, mental health, health outcomes across the board.”

Anyone worried about the possibility of abuse or neglect can contact the national child abuse hotline: 1-800-422-4453 or childhelphotline.org. Crisis counselors answer calls 24/7 and provide crisis intervention, information, and referrals.

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