With schools closed across the state, officials with Oregon’s Department of Human Services are concerned about a swift decline in reports to the state’s child abuse hotline.
“Compared to this time last month, reports of abuse and neglect have gone down just about 70%,” DHS spokesman Jake Sunderland said. “And we’re seeing the same thing with investigations of child abuse that our staff are doing. Those investigation assignments are down 72%.”
Though the state can see a drop in child abuse and neglect reports over the past month, it cannot provide a year-to-year comparison, because the child abuse hotline went from a county-based service to statewide last April, Sunderland said.
He said the numbers the state does have, however, show a steep the decline in reports.
“On Feb. 19, a Wednesday, we had 834 calls reporting child abuse and neglect,” Sunderland said. “On Wednesday, March 25, we had 246.”
Most abuse and neglect reports come from people who are designated as “mandatory reporters,” such as teachers and other staff that are frequently around children in schools, he said. Other mandatory reporters include doctors, dentists and licensed therapists.
“When a child is at school, they’re spending a significant portion of the day with mandatory reporters that are trained and expected to be hyper-aware of the signs of abuse and neglect,” he said. “Kids across Oregon are not in school right now, so they’re missing that time around mandatory reporters.”
That’s a major concern for the agency, compounded by the social isolation the coronavirus pandemic has brought to households.
“As social isolation sets in, in order to slow the curve of the spread of coronavirus, kids and families are interacting with less people,” Sunderland said. “Kids have less eyes on them and less opportunities to recognize and suspect abuse and neglect.
Sunderland said most cases of abuse and neglect are the result of some sort of crisis within a family – whether it’s related to mental health, economic instability, general stress or trauma.
“As people across the state are stressed out, they don’t have a release. They can’t go for a walk [alone] or go out to the store to get a break. They can’t go to work,” he said. “They’re concerned about money. They’re concerned about their health. They’re concerned about the state of the world. All of these stress factors are also risk factors for abuse and neglect.”
Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill Saturday released informational graphics on social media to remind people to continue reporting suspected child abuse and neglect to the state’s hotline.
The Multnomah County District Attorney's Office created several social media graphics that you can share about child abuse reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click our link for view them all & share! https://t.co/lYCqyjjsaT #COVID19 #pdxcovid19 #Oregon #OregonWay #childabuse pic.twitter.com/Sm7omCRemU— Brent Weisberg (@BrentWeisberg) March 28, 2020
“We all have an obligation to do everything we can to protect children and teens,” Underhill said in a statement.
Sunderland said the Department of Human Services is combing through its data and trying to identify any specific trends in hope of figuring out any preventative measures that can be taken.
The biggest thing people can do is try and keep in touch with neighbors, friends and acquaintances, and offer help when necessary, while keeping with social distancing measures in mind, Sunderland said. That could mean yelling across the front yard to your next door neighbor, or reaching out through text message, phone call or FaceTime.
“Check on your neighbors," Sunderland said. "Check on the families that are around us, and when we can safely do so, provide whatever help we can."
He said that could look like picking up groceries for a neighbor who can’t, or making sure people have information about applying for unemployment or food assistance benefits.
“Do what you can in whatever small way to help, and it will make a difference,” Sunderland said.
The child abuse hotline is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The number is 855-503-SAFE (855-503-7233).