Coronavirus pandemic linked to decline in child abuse reports

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The coronavirus pandemic is correlating with a drop in the number of reported instances of child abuse in the region.

Calls to child abuse hotlines in both San Diego and Riverside counties dropped in as mandatory stay-at-home orders started to take effect in March.

On Wednesday, March 12, there were 402 calls to the San Diego hotline. The next day, Thursday, March 13, the hotline saw 243 calls. Local school districts began to announce school closures that day, virtually all of which took effect the following Monday. The hotline has averaged less than 150 calls per day since then, with just 100 calls April 11.

Riverside had a similar drop — the county reported a 49% reduction in calls in the week of April 11 compared to the week of March 7. The sharpest decline in call volume was between the second and third weeks of March, Riveside County Department of Public Social Services spokesman Gene Kennedy said.

“It’s definitely a thing that calls are down, because you’ve got children who are not in school and you’ve got educators who are mandated reporters,” Kennedy said. 

Kennedy explained that many reports of child abuse come from teachers, school administrators, day care providers and other mandated reporters who are now not having any contact with children who they would ordinarily be seeing several times a week.

“Typically, we see a decline in reports of abuse and neglect when school is out for summer and so that’s what we’re experiencing right now,” Kennedy said.

A decline in reports of abuse, of course, does not necessarily mean that abuse is not happening, he said.

“What we’re doing is we’re calling on friends, neighbors, family members, to reach out to families over the phone, social media, videoconference and just let them know you care,” Kennedy said. “We want the community to know we’re still here and remember, making a report is asking for help for services to a child and their family.”

Sarah Sweeney, a spokeswoman for San Diego County, said that county, too, is keeping an eye on the drop in child abuse reports and what it means.

“It is too early to know the full impact that changes in the economy or other factors could have in increasing the risk for children in our community, but CWS does anticipate that there will be a recovery period from COVID-19 and we are exploring new measures to help strengthen families and ensure the safety of children moving forward through this period and beyond,” 07Sweeney said.

It’s less clear what impact the pandemic and related stay-at-home orders are having on reports of domestic violence. Statistics provided by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department showed the department responded to 20 reports of domestic violence incidents March 14 and 15 reports March 19, the day the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect. But while the sheriff’s department had been averaging between five and 10 domestic violence calls per day for most of the month before the stay-at-home order, it did experience an earlier peak of 15 domestic violence-related on Feb. 16, long before the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic began to be felt widely.

In Riverside County, statistics on call volumes in March were unavailable by press time, as monthly statistics are not available until the 25th of the following month, Riverside sheriff’s Sgt. Deanna Pecoraro said.

But although there is not yet any data, it is a potential problem that is being watched closely.

“We know that murder-suicides for families have gone up 20-25% nationally,” said Melissa Donaldson, director of the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office Victim Services division, which provides support for violent crime victims throughout the criminal justice process, said.

“This is a scary time because it’s hard enough when folks are isolated in an abusive relationship, but at least the abuser goes to work,” Donaldson said.

She said her office is still busy even now that many things cannot be done in person.

“We’re busy. We have not slowed down. We’ve changed how we’re doing the work of course, but our filings are busy; our advocates are busy,” she said.

Donaldson said her office is, for instance, meeting with victims electronically rather than in person, but that’s not always easy.

“We’re checking in with people more, and here’s the tricky part with domestic violence: obviously these people are now home with their abusers, so checking in with them is even more of a challenge,” she said. 

The San Diego County Child Welfare Services Child Abuse hotline can be contacted at 858-560-2191 or toll-free at 800-344-6000.

The Riverside County Department of Public Social Services Child Abuse hotline can be contacted at 800-442-4918.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.