Mis­souri child abuse calls drop 50% amid virus iso­la­tion, rais­ing con­cerns

The Kansas City Star - - News - BY LAURA BAUER lbauer@kc­star.com Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclau­rab

Mis­souri of­fi­cials warned Wed­nes­day that the safety of the state’s most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren may be at risk af­ter abuse hot­line calls plum­meted since the on­slaught of the coro­n­avirus.

Calls have dropped by 50 per­cent since March 11, ac­cord­ing to the Mis­souri Department of So­cial Ser­vices. Thou­sands of kids are home dur­ing this pan­demic and not at school, which means they are see­ing fewer peo­ple who may no­tice signs of abuse and ne­glect and re­port it.

“This dras­tic drop we’ve had in March, it’s scary,” Sara Smith, deputy direc­tor for Mis­souri’s Chil­dren’s Divi­sion, told The Star Wed­nes­day. “We need to be there, com­mu­nity mem­bers need to be there for kids.”

Kansas has seen a sim­i­lar drop in calls.

Teach­ers and child care providers have al­ways been key man­dated re­porters and of­ten ac­count for a large num­ber of abuse and ne­glect re­ports. Take them out of chil­dren’s lives on a reg­u­lar ba­sis and that safety net is gone, of­fi­cials said.

What makes that worse, ex­perts say, is families are un­der ex­treme pres­sure at this time. That only makes chil­dren more vul­ner­a­ble for abuse or ne­glect.

“Par­ents are at home, deal­ing with the stress of not work­ing, no food in the house,” said John DeGarmo, direc­tor of The Fos­ter Care In­sti­tute, based in Ge­or­gia. “Many of these chil­dren, their stories are go­ing to go un­re­ported, they are go­ing to be hid­den in the home dur­ing this time of iso­la­tion.“

Or if they do be­come known, some­times it’s too late to pre­vent harm.

Six chil­dren in Fort Worth, Texas, last week were treated for se­vere phys­i­cal abuse, and doc­tors sus­pected that stress con­nected to the pan­demic was a fac­tor, of­fi­cials at Cook Chil­dren’s Med­i­cal Cen­ter said. The vic­tims were un­der 4 years old.

In Mis­souri, of­fi­cials are ask­ing those who are con­cerned for cer­tain chil­dren and families to let the hot­line know.

“Even if they just sus­pect some­thing, we’d rather have them make a re­port to make sure kids are safe dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time,” Smith said.

Some ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers who are con­cerned about rel­a­tives, Smith said, have made it a point to call chil­dren and Facetime them just so they can try to see if ev­ery­thing looks all right. Also, they may ask light ques­tions like, “What did you have for lunch?” or “Did you have a snack to­day?” Even ask­ing how mom and dad are feel­ing.

The an­swers chil­dren give could in­di­cate whether the fam­ily needs food or could use some help.

With hot­line calls down so low, of­fi­cials urge com­mu­nity mem­bers to get in­volved.

“Chil­dren’s Divi­sion work­ers are still out there con­nect­ing with families, pro­vid­ing as­sis­tance, and mak­ing sure kids are safe,” said Jennifer Tid­ball, act­ing direc­tor for DSS, in a re­lease. “But we can’t help that child if we don’t get a re­port to the Hot­line.”

In Kansas, a daily aver­age of 200 calls were made to the state’s Pro­tec­tion Re­port Cen­ter dur­ing Fis­cal Year 2019. In the sum­mer months, the aver­age can dip to roughly 150 a day.

Since March 19, the daily aver­age has been 102 re­ports, said Mike Deines, spokesman for the Kansas Department for Chil­dren and Families.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors are still work­ing cases and visit­ing homes dur­ing this time, and res­i­dents in Kansas can call 1-800-922-5330 if they have con­cerns of abuse or ne­glect to re­port.

Mis­souri of­fi­cials ask any­one who sus­pects child abuse and ne­glect to call the state’s toll-free hot­line at 1-800-392-3738. The Mis­souri Child Abuse and Ne­glect Hot­line is an­swered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call­ers can re­port anony­mously.

NEIL NAKAHODO File photo

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