Calls to Santa Clara County’s child abuse and neglect hotline have declined in recent weeks, but that drop doesn’t necessarily reflect a decrease in abuse and neglect occurring.
As children are studying at home after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools across the United States, they’re no longer seeing teachers, coaches, family friends or other trusted adults in and around their schools.
That means mandatory reporters who are required to report suspected abuse are no longer seeing signs – from physical bruising to behavioral changes – of potential neglect or abuse. And as families deal with the stress of homeschooling and financial hardship, experts fear child abuse is on the rise and deadlier since children are isolated with their abusers.
“They’re just not getting the calls anymore that they used to, and it’s impossible to believe that child abuse and neglect isn’t happening,” said Steven Dick, chair of the Santa Clara County Child Abuse Prevention Council. “Compounded with the stress and trauma that can happen with sheltering-in-place, in a lot of homes you’re talking about a powder keg.”
According to county Social Services Agency staff, the Child Abuse Hotline – (833) SCC-KIDS (722-5437) – received 2,041 calls in March, when the stay-home order began. Throughout April, that number dropped to 1,462 calls – a rate 42 percent lower than the same timeframe last year.
“That’s simply not consistent with even historical trends of just general child abuse and neglect,” Dick said. “Obviously, because there are unique traumas and stressors as it relates to being sheltered-in-place for adults, caregivers and children, our concerns are heightened because of those increased risks.”
The county has since expanded resources in identifying abuse and neglect, in addition to training others to be mandated reporters. But due to the wide spectrum of clues and identifiers of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, Daniel Little, director of the county’s Department of Family and Children Services, said people should call anytime someone’s concerned that harm is happening.
“If you feel like there’s a chance that a child has been abused or neglected, you don’t have to have proof. If you have a suspicion, go ahead and call,” Little said. “I don’t want any community members to feel like they’re now having to be their investigators.”
The trend is not unique to Silicon Valley. With fewer eyes on kids, child abuse reports have plummeted across the nation. But hospitals are seeing more severe cases of abuse injuries, according to statistics, and half of the calls to a national sexual assault hotline came from minors.
In Santa Clara County, the trained staff at the county’s Department of Family and Children Services decides whether it’s necessary to send a social worker to knock on doors and investigate, based on evidence, Little said, despite the team now working from home.
Little said the most serious allegations of abuse and neglect – where children are ultimately removed – have remained fairly constant from the beginning of 2020, especially because those calls typically come from law enforcement, hospitals and other services that are still available.
However, he said the group of children experiencing less severe harm might now slide under the radar without teachers in their typical environments.
“It’s that population that I think we’re most fearful that we’re losing,” Little said. “As more stressors get compounded on the family, then they could potentially turn into something more significant. I don’t want to have to wait to respond to a crisis by sitting and waiting.”
So while calls to his agency have slowed, Little has directed his department’s focus to working with community-based organizations that provide financial, housing, food and mental health resources through more grassroots relationships, in the hope that families won’t need county intervention to address abuse later down the line.
“That’s where we want to go as a system anyways, so I think this has just kind of sped that process up,” Little said.
One of those community organizations is FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, which annually serves between 7,000 and 9,000 families countywide with the goal of the healthy development of children.
Dealing with COVID-19 distancing protocols, CEO Jolene Smith said FIRST 5 has focused on creating environments of wellness and prevention through technology. The hope is these community partnerships will reduce the occurrence and escalation of trauma and county intervention.
That transition includes family resource centers offering online training courses and Zoom workshops that focus on positive, relationship-based approaches to health and wellness, Smith said, as well as warmline check-in calls.
As part of that effort, FIRST 5 has rolled out telehealth options for mental, physical and behavioral health concerns open to the entire family.
“We know isolation is a big risk factor, and we know that many of our families are multiple dwellers, which could be very stressful, so I think that’s been a great safety net,” Smith said.
By partnering with organizations already embedded in communities like SOMOS Mayfair, Catholic Charities and Loaves and Fishes, Smith said better connections are made by offering centralized services – similar to the county’s recent Universal Access to Early Childhood Care, Education & Health Services pilot program.
Smith said the groups are continually finding ways to reach children and families amid the COVID-19 distancing protocols.
“I think that community-based organizations in this county are really warriors and stand up heroes for the support that they’ve continued in a different way – a new normal, actually – to reach families who are really vulnerable,” she said.