Reports of child abuse down amid COVID-19, but officials say numbers are misleading

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The Administration for Children and Families has some tips for recognizing child abuse. Treasure Coast Newspapers

The number of reported cases of statewide child abuse have plummeted during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, but state officials say the numbers don’t represent reality.

“Child abuse is very likely trending upward not downward,” said Ryan Gustafson of Washoe County Human Services Division Director over Children’s Services. “Child abuse goes hand in hand with domestic violence … When COVID started, our calls dropped significantly.”

The Nevada Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) oversees abuse cases in Carson City and Nevada’s 15 rural counties, while Washoe and Clark counties have their own departments.

Statewide, about 75 percent of child abuse reports are made by mandated reporters, such as educators, according to Karla Delgado, social services chief for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

With state-mandated stay-at-home orders, DCFS noticed a 14 percent decrease in reports in April, including a 46 percent decrease statewide in the number of reports made by educational personnel.  May saw a 30 percent reduction in calls statewide, according to Ross Armstrong, administrator for DCFS.

Washoe County Human Services fields about 600 reported cases per month, Gustafson said. The number of calls Washoe fielded dropped about half in March and April, he said.

“Spring break hit and schools never went back,” he said. “The issue is, kids didn’t come back. We were told to stay at home. It was less visibility everywhere.”

In Lyon County, as in many jurisdictions, the school district is the largest reporter of child abuse, according to Human Services Director Shayla Holmes.

“Chances of child abuse going down like this when parent stress is going up is rare. So, (with schools closed) there is significant concern about the lack of eyes on the children in the community and how much abuse isn’t being reported.

“It’s really hard to identify a number that’s not being reported. The gap of reports is probably the bigger concern. Why aren’t they coming in? The biggest direct correlation is your number one reporter is your schools, and they are closed.”

Lyon County School District Public Information Officer Erika Cowger said the district does not keep record of how many abuse cases it reports annually.

She said during the virus closure, “teachers are just as in touch as they can be with students. We’re still mandatory reporters. We may be home, but our jobs as mandatory reporters haven’t changed.”

Statewide, there were 37,600 reports of child abuse in 2019; about 5,200 were in Washoe County and about 4,200 in Carson City and Nevada’s 15 rural counties. Those calls resulted in 470 Washoe County children being removed from their homes and 244 children from rural areas being removed.

In 2018, there were just under 38,000 reports of child abuse; about 5,600 were in Washoe County and more than 4,100 in Carson City and Nevada’s rural counties. Those calls resulted in 550 Washoe County children being removed from their homes and more than 250 children being removed from rural homes.

In rural counties, there were 381 abuse reports made in April of 2019, but just 217 in April of this year, according to Armstrong.

“With COVID occurring, there’s not likely there’s been a tremendous drop in abuse and neglect,” Armstrong said. “You can imagine putting yourself in the shoes of a 5 or 6-year-old kid who is getting abused at home who had school and after school programs that were a sanctuary, and that was pulled out from under them.

“If we are all sheltering in place, there are some of those tools victims had to get out of the way were cut off, and in some cases, they are trapped.”

Finding ways to get eyes on the children

One thing that didn’t slow down during the shelter-in-place orders was online deliveries. Washoe County Human Services jumped on that and partnered with the United States Postal Service, UPS and FedEx to help educate delivery drivers on how to spot signs of abuse and how to report.

“Those folks were having more access to kids and families – not that they were going into homes – more than anybody,” Gustafson said.

Carriers received notices of what to look for and how to report abuse, and human services is working on in-person training for some of the carriers, Gustafson said.

Armstrong said there are also changes in how employees make visits and monitor existing abuse cases.

Federal regulations are allowing video visits between social service workers and children during the COVID-19 pandemic, but “there may be some cases where having the video visit isn’t sufficient. In those cases, we’ve made sure workers have appropriate PPE. It remains on a case-by-case basis to reduce in-person contact,” he said. “If we assign a case for investigation, they are still rolling out for an in-person investigation and being as cautious as they can to reduce the transmission of COIVID-19.”

What to expect moving forward

As the economy slowly reopens, the number of reported cases is creeping back up, Gustafson said. He estimates his department is seeing 90 percent of its usual numbers.

“Reopening the economy – I think that helps. As summer programs open, pools reopen, stores reopen – I think it’s just visibility. Kids are able to go outside and play. If the world opens up from an economic standpoint, the visibility opens up significantly. Those eyes and ears have really been diminished over the last months. If those get placed back on kiddos, I think we’ll see those calls and reports come in.”

Amy Alonzo covers Mason Valley and rural Nevada. Reach her at aalonzo@masonvalleynews.com or (775) 741-8588. Here’s how you can support ongoing coverage and local journalism

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