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Social distancing leads to a drop in child abuse reports

Photo illustration by Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As teachers and school staff prepare to start the school year online, some are worried about an important aspect of an educator’s job – reporting signs of abuse and neglect in a student.

While everyone in New Mexico is a mandatory reporter for abuse, the responsibility of reporting those telltale signs often falls on teachers, since they see students regularly.

As school districts in the state shifted online following the outbreak of COVID-19, referrals to the state Children, Youth and Families Department declined in April and May, CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst said.

“The first two months of this, we did see a drastic drop in numbers,” Moore-Pabst said.

While CYFD does not track how many referrals come from teachers, other data hints to their impact on the numbers. Reports of abuse usually decline in the summer months and surge back with the start of school, according to Melissa Ewer, director of New Mexico Children’s Alliance.

Now, children are spending nearly all of their time at home. Those working with victims of abuse say children also have less interaction with other adults, making it harder for the youths to report abuse or for anyone outside the home to notice.

And recognizing signs of abuse over video conference programs such as Zoom can be difficult, according to Leslie Strickler, director of the Child Abuse Response Team at University of New Mexico Hospital. It’s hard for children to report, she said, when their abuser is in the same room.

Those difficulties are already on display. Many doctors are conducting appointments by phone or online, Strickler said, and with that method she can’t establish a setting where a child feels safe.

“We recognized very early on that (online) was not feasible for child abuse assessment,” she said, adding that schools face the same challenge.

However, school districts are still attempting to fill that role.

After child abuse reporting started to dip, CYFD developed a training for Albuquerque Public Schools on how to recognize abuse and neglect virtually.

Kris Meurer, executive director for APS’ Student, Family and Community Supports division, said training for staff was piloted this past spring and is being added to a slate of required trainings.

Educators keep tabs on behavioral changes, the background environment and participation levels, among other signs to monitor child welfare from a screen, according to Senior Director of Counseling Services Vicki Price.

“We felt that it was really critical that we still need to be able to do reporting and to understand what we’re looking for in a virtual setting,” Meurer said.

Price said all staff are expected to review the training at the beginning of the school year as part of APS’ back-to-school plan.

Santa Fe Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia said she thinks teachers can still build a relationship with students, an important factor in recognizing signs of abuse, even if they’ve never met face to face.

“It’s gonna take a little bit,” Garcia said. “It is easier when you already have a relationship built.”

It’s unclear by how much CYFD referrals have declined, but abuse is happening. Ewer said local directors in her network are reporting increasingly violent cases of abuse, which are happening more frequently than before the pandemic.

“The abuse that is getting reported is extremely severe, a lot more violent,” she said.

Why these cases of abuse are more violent is unknown, but Strickler and Ewer said the pandemic has placed a greater number of families under stress – physical and financial – which can exacerbate conditions for children at risk of abuse.

And it’s places heavily affected by the pandemic, such as Farmington, that have seen the sharpest declines in reporting, Ewer said.

For a system that has relied primarily on educators to report, there have been some adjustments. Neighbors, deliverymen and other adults have begun reporting in greater numbers, Moore-Pabst said.

He said the decrease in reporting has unintentionally improved the care clients are receiving.

“If anything, it’s dropped the number of new cases coming in so our investigators can spend more time on fewer cases to do a better job,” he said.

But Strickler said there will still be cases of abuse that go unreported and that online classes do little to solve the issue.

“The risk is very high that, even with this type of contact, kids who are at risk of being harmed will not be recognized in this new modified school platform,” she said.

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