The week before many schools across the county closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, San Diego County received 1,525 calls to its child abuse hotline. The following week, when the closures went into effect, calls plummeted by nearly half to 856.
Those numbers help explain why experts don’t believe the drop in child abuse reports amid the coronavirus pandemic correspond with an actual drop in child abuse. Rather, they believe the numbers simply signal a drop in those who tend to alert authorities to abuse.
In San Diego County, like across the United States, calls to the county’s Child Welfare Services Child Abuse Hotline have decreased. Many people who are mandated reporters of potential abuse, like educators, medical health care providers and child care providers, no longer have frequent in-person contact with children.
“We have seen a reduction in the number of calls that are coming into our child abuse and neglect hotline,” said Kim Giardina, child welfare director at San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency. “That is a similar trend to what we’re seeing nationally and across California.”
In March, there were 5,494 calls into the hotline. That’s 350 fewer calls than the same month the previous year.
Calls in April are on track to be even lower. In April 2019, there were 5,731 calls to the hotline. Up until April 12, there have only been 1144. If that number doubles by the end of the month, it will still be less than half the number of calls into the hotline last year.
“We actually become more concerned about abuse when we see fewer reports,” said Jessica Heldman, a law professor at the University of San Diego Children’s Advocacy Institute. “A decrease in the number of calls to hotlines doesn’t mean there is less abuse.”
Police calls for service for child endangerment have also declined. The San Diego Police Department had 156 calls for service for child endangerment in February. In March, there were 143. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department had 36 child abuse calls between Feb. 3 and March 1. Between March 2 and March 30, that number dropped by more than half to 15.
Heldman said that quarantine and social distancing protocols and the resulting social isolation and economic stress they can breed can heighten risk factors for abuse.
Limited access to social services, like food support, child care or shelters, during this time can also increase the risk of child abuse. Receiving those services can help families stabilize and thus prevent abuse, Heldman said.
“We see greater abuse when parents are out of work and when we lack access to social services,” she said.
Heldman also warned that children may be increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic, even if they’re not in abusive situations. For example, many essential workers may have to continue to go into work. For single parents or low-income families who don’t have paid leave and can’t afford to forgo paychecks, and for various reasons can’t work from home, school and daycare closures can mean their children are left at home alone.
Giardina and Heldman said it’s imperative that people understand child welfare services is still operating, and continue to check on children in whatever way they can.
“We encourage all members of the community to look out for kids and families who may be vulnerable,” Giardina said. “As people are calling to check in on their family members, it would be great to make sure we’re checking in on children.”
The San Diego County Office of Education has advised teachers to continue to check in with students and their caregivers as they make the transition to virtual classrooms and distance learning. The agency told teachers to ask students things like, “How is learning from home different from learning at schools?” and “Give me one word that describes how you feel today” to ensure they know teachers still support them. They also advised teachers to look out for warning signs, like students with internet access who aren’t attending virtual classes or completing homework over long periods of time or repeated calls and messages to families that go unanswered. The FBI recently warned that the closure of schools and children’s increased online presence during this period could mean an increased risk of online child abuse and sexual exploitation.
“On a macro level, it’s important to recognize that child welfare services are still functioning in terms of documenting abuse and monitoring kids who are at home,” Heldman said. “Social workers are essential government workers, who in the best of times are overworked and underfunded.”
Changes in Social Work Protocols
While social workers are considered essential workers, the coronavirus has somewhat changed how child protective services workers can go about their jobs.
Hotline screeners and social workers must now ask those reporting abuse about families’ coronavirus exposure, Giardina said.
Social workers are still doing in-person visits when they start investigations and have been provided personal protective equipment, like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. They’ve also been advised to maintain social distancing while conducting in-person visits.
In some cases, social workers are then allowed to do virtual follow-ups, though in more serious cases, they will continue in-person visits.
“We do need social workers to lay their eyes on kids,” Heldman said. “We need social workers as much as possible to be in the environment where kids are living to see the details and observe the risks. We need social workers to communicate with kids confidentially, and all of those are impacted when social workers can’t interact in person.”
Limited court operations have also impacted some cases. For new cases and any urgent matters, social workers and families can still see judges and hold telephonic hearings, but the majority of non-emergency juvenile court cases have had their timelines pushed back. Emergency Family Temporary Restraining orders, other emergency orders for family matters, juvenile justice and dependency detention hearings are still available.
California’s child abuse hotline is (800) 344-6000. San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency child abuse hotline is (858) 560-2191.