The number of daily calls to the state child abuse hotline have fallen 32 percent since Maine schools began closing their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While that may sound like good news, it’s just the opposite.

Child advocates say the sudden decline in child abuse reports does not mean that Maine children are safe from harm – it means fewer people are around to report it.

In fact, child abuse prevention advocates are worried that more children will be hurt while families are forced to stay at home under stressful conditions and that abuse will go undetected. They’re scrambling to figure out how to deal with the situation.

Three of the most common reporters of child abuse or neglect – teachers, social workers and pediatricians – have had to abandon most face-to-face contact with children and use email or video chats to interact from a distance, making it much harder to spot problems.

Even state social workers are conducting their monthly check-ins with the 2,290 children in state custody by video chat or phone after state officials suspended in-person visits for all but newly opened child abuse and neglect cases this month in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“We certainly believe there is a possibility of increased risk,” said Todd Landry, the head of Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services. “Data suggests that during periods of economic downturn, when stressors on families may be increased, there is a potential for an increase in abuse and neglect.”

It’s still too early to know whether that is happening now, in Maine or elsewhere, but Landry said he is concerned.

“That is why we encourage all of us to be those eyes and ears,” said Landry, who came to his post a year ago after a stint as Nebraska’s top child protection official. “Be supportive of each other during this time period, but if there is a concern of possible abuse and neglect, pick up the phone and give us a call.” 

The state logged 6,713 calls to its child abuse hotline in March, about the same as it had received the month before, according to state data provided at the request of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Not every hotline call leads to an abuse investigation. Some callers want only information. Others complain about other issues. Some are dismissed as baseless.

But activity in the second half of March, when most Maine schools had closed because of COVID-19, dropped by a whopping 32 percent, according to state child protection data, from 260 calls daily before March 15 to only 176 calls a day from March 16 through the end of the month.

Other states are reporting similar mid-March declines in child abuse and neglect complaints, Landry said. The call volume made March look more like June, when the number of referrals remain high while school is in session but falls off dramatically after schools let out for the summer.

State data show a dramatic change in which groups were – or in this case, were not – reporting child abuse and neglect in that second half of March. In February, about 22 percent of referrals came from school staff. In the second half of March, school staff accounted for only 7 percent of child abuse referrals.

“We’ve never been through anything like this, and it’s still very early, but the usual safety net is gone,” said Christine Alberi, the state’s child welfare ombudsman. “Kids are not in school, not in day care, not with the doctor. All the people who make those mandatory reports aren’t there to make them anymore. Of course I’m worried.”

The rate of child abuse doesn’t change much from month to month, but reporting rates do: up when school is in session, down when school is out, Alberi said. And that is not because families are happier during that summer break and more troubled when the kids go back to school.

To help revive the educator side of that eyes-and-ears network, Landry is working with the Maine Department of Education and child protection agencies in other states to write new guidelines to help teachers spot signs of abuse or neglect even in a distance learning setting. The guidelines should come out this week.

Pediatricians are taking steps to stay in touch with families, too, urging parents of babies to continue well-child visits up to 24 months of age despite the pandemic by setting up separate office hours, entrances and office locations, said pediatrician Adrienne Carmack, Landry’s newly hired medical director.

Pediatricians are debating the merits of non-emergency appointments for older kids during the pandemic, said pediatrician Deborah Hagler of Harpswell, incoming president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. If done safely, such exams could promote public health and child welfare, she said.

“Life has to go on through this viral infection,” Hagler said. “Right now, emergency management forces us to divert all but the sickest people away from the medical system, but if we do that, there is likely to be a long-term price that must be paid. … I just hope it doesn’t lead to a tragedy that could have been avoided.”

Child protection caseworkers are still conducting face-to-face investigations of new child abuse and neglect complaints. These caseworkers wear state-supplied gloves and masks, standing six feet away from anybody who answered yes to a series of recently developed COVID-19 screening questions.

Whenever possible, the caseworkers are conducting these new investigations outside, Landry said. To date, no child in state custody has tested positive, he said, and none of the state foster families have turned away a child out of fear he or she may be infected or has been exposed to COVID-19.

But the state does not test the children it is removing from homes or placing into foster care unless the child is displaying the symptoms outlined by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, such as a fever or coughing, or was in contact with someone else who tested positive for the virus, Landry said.

But the ripple effects of the coronavirus, such as job losses, child care closures and increased child care and teaching responsibilities for school-age children, have made it harder for the state to find foster families ready to add a new child to their household in the past three weeks, Landry said.

Parents across the nation are coming under enormous pressure right now to serve as the guardian, teacher, entertainer, chef and nurse of the family and an indispensable remote worker during an economic crisis of as-yet untold proportions, all at the same time.

“Parents are trying to be all things at once,” said Lynn Stanley, the interim director of the Maine chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “For the haves with high-speed internet, good jobs, full fridges and a big back yard, it’s doable. For the have-nots, things are incredibly hard and likely to get even harder.”

Shawn Yardley, a former child protection worker who now runs a Lewiston social services nonprofit, wants to find a way to support stressed families that participate in the Head Start program he oversees before the anxiety of the moment can turn into something ugly or dangerous.

The pandemic forced Yardley’s agency, Community Concepts, to close last month, which cut its families off from the free food and diapers it provided as well as its programming. To close that gap, Yardley partnered with Good Shepherd Food Bank to deliver boxes of food and diapers to the families.

“Getting cooped up with your kids can get old, especially when everybody’s stressed, you can’t afford internet or cable or takeout and you don’t know when it’s all going to end,” Yardley said. “We’re trying to help and, at the same time, make them feel connected, to know they haven’t disappeared or been forgotten.”

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