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