SGV Tribune

Coronavirus lockdown shields abused kids from watchful eyes

Child abuse and neglect reports dive statewide after schools closed in March. Officials ask for public’s help.

When kids come to school with swollen lips or black eyes — or fail to come to school at all — teachers are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect to authorities.

When doctors observe kids with broken bones, hidden bruises and inconsistent explanations, they’re required to do the same.

But in a global pandemic and its attendant lockdown, mandated reporters like teachers and doctors can’t keep watchful eyes on kids who may be suffering abuse or neglect at home — homes that may be dangerous, and homes that kids aren’t supposed to leave.

Data show a precipitous drop in child abuse reports in California since the coronavirus lockdown began in mid-March, suggesting vulnerable children may be at risk.

Neighbor Rilee Unger, 3, plays with a toy after dropping off a couple of her own teddy bears on the porch of a home where police arrested a couple accused of holding 13 children captive in Perris, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018.  (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Before and after

On March 2, before schools closed, 1,075 child abuse and neglect reports were received in Los Angeles County. On March 9, there were 1,051 reports.

After schools closed, though, abuse and neglect reports plummeted. On March 16, there were just 566 reports. On March 23, there were 371. And on March 30, there were 376, according to detailed daily data from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

That’s a worrisome drop of some two-thirds.

“Social workers rely heavily on mandated reporters to initiate contact with our department in order for us to protect children,” said Bobby D. Cagle, director of DCFS, in a prepared statement.

“With this safeguard now gone, I am calling on Los Angeles County residents to be the voice for children who may be experiencing physical abuse, severe food insecurity or other forms of neglect,” he said.

State and county data provided by the California Department of Social Services does not break down child abuse and neglect reports by day, as LA County did. Instead, the state released gross monthly data for February and March.

That prevents a detailed analysis of before- and after- reporting drops, because California schools didn’t shut down until mid-March. But even the monthly figures raise alarms.

In Orange and Los Angeles counties, abuse and neglect reports dropped 12 percent from February to March. Statewide, the drop averaged 11 percent.

“The COVID-19 pandemic we confront today presents unique and serious risk factors for many families,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a proclamation noting that April, perhaps ironically, is Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Call to action

Toys and other items are strewn around one of the bedrooms of a home in Fairfield, Calif., on May 14, 2018, where authorities removed 10 children and charged their father with torture and their mother with neglect after an investigation revealed a lengthy period of severe physical and emotional abuse. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

“Children are especially vulnerable to the stresses of health risks, school closures, isolation and economic instability in their families,” the governor said.

“Without the structure and safety of school, children who were already vulnerable to abuse and neglect at home face a greater threat. Similarly, we recognize that many parents who have lost jobs and income due to the COVID-19 pandemic may be feeling overwhelmed and strained.”

Each year, 200 to 300 children die or nearly die from abuse and neglect in California, according to state data. The overwhelming majority of those tragedies happen in families that are known to the child welfare system. Only a handful happen in foster care.

But child abuse and neglect is greatly under-reported even at the best of times, and officials are asking the public to be their eyes and ears now.

“Finding solutions and keeping our children safe requires input and action from everyone,” Newsom said. “Right now, reaching out to support a parent who is struggling is a simple action we can all take.” .

Cagle, of L.A. County, noted that family dynamics can be challenging even on the best of days, so community involvement and awareness is needed now more than ever.

“This situation is sure to test the limits of even the most patient individuals,” he said. “But I want to emphasize that there are services available in the community to help. If you or someone you know is in need of extra support during this time of heightened uncertainty, please contact DCFS to find out what services are available in your area.”

Those seeking help can call 211. For concerns about a child’s treatment, contact a child abuse hotline: In Orange County, call 714-940-1000 or 800-207-4464, and in Los Angeles, 800-540-4000. The Child Help National Child Abuse Hotline is 800-422-4453. If a situation is urgent, call local police at 911.

“We live by the wisdom of Frederick Douglass, that it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults,” Newsom said in his proclamation. “Now more than ever, we must all do our part to help build strong children and protect them from harm.”