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With Fewer Eyes On Kids, Kentucky Sees Sharp Decline In Child Abuse Reports

Steven Lilley
Flickr Creative Commons

  To slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Andy Beshear and other public officials are asking Kentuckians to maintain strict social distancing and stay “Healthy At Home.” 

But in a state that leads the nation in rates of child abuse and neglect, home is not always a safe place, especially for children. According to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Kentucky has the highest rate of child maltreatment in the nation: 23.5 child victims for every 1,000 children. That’s more than double the national rate of 9.2 per 1,000.

Out of Sight

The week schools, restaurants and bars closed, the number of reports to the state about suspected child abuse dropped by more than 1,000, according to data provided to WFPL News from Kentucky’s Cabinet for Child and Family Services.

The week before the closures, the state received 4,027 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. Those were calls to the state child abuse hotline, or reports online, or from law enforcement agencies. The week closures went into effect, the state received 2,846 reports. That’s a decline of nearly 30 percent.

It’s important to note these were reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. The numbers do not reflect substantiated incidents of child maltreatment. About half of reports lead to cases opened by the state, according to data in the annual U.S. DHHS report.

The child welfare advocates WFPL spoke to were all in agreement: a drop in calls is not a good sign.

“The abuse isn’t suddenly stopping,” Rebekah Farley said. “The referrals are stopping.” Farley is a spokeswoman for Boys & Girls Haven, a residential treatment center in Louisville that cares for many survivors of child abuse.

Farley was among nine child welfare advocates and experts who said the drop in calls is most likely happening because social distancing measures are keeping kids isolated from adults who would typically see signs of abuse, such as bruising, or changes in behavior, and report it to the state.

Teachers and other educators, for example,account for 20 percent nationwide of those who filed reports alleging potential child abuse, according to DHHS. But schools are closed and childcare centers are closed.

“They’re not near neighbors, or they’re not around teachers, or they’re not in places of worship. All of those individuals who would be mandated reporters, they’re out of that view right now,” Hillary Bullock said, a spokeswoman for Family & Children’s Place, a center in Louisville that provides services for victims of child abuse and their families.

Bullock said people who have suspected a child may be in an abusive situation in the past, but hesitated to call the state hotline, should go ahead and call. State law requires any person who suspects child abuse to report it to the state or law enforcement. And, Bullock said, people should look out for kids in their community as best they can while maintaining social distancing.

“Adults who might have had relationships with children outside of this crisis should try to maintain those relationships in some way,” Bullock said.

Teachers should try to stay in touch with students and parents, and watch for signs of abuse like changes in behavior or bruising as best they can.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services provided the weekly data for this report, but declined multiple interview requests. Asked about the drop in reports during his daily briefing, Gov. Beshear said he is concerned.

“We know the most vulnerable are even more vulnerable during this time,” he said during his coronavirus briefing on Wednesday. “We need those that see it to report it,” he said, reminding the public that adults are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse to the state.

State Suspends Most In-Person Child Abuse Investigations

The state has suspended most in-person visits by social workers to children’s homes, “except in immediate risk or high-risk only circumstances,” according to Gov. Beshear, during a daily briefing in mid-March.

“I don’t like having to do it,” Beshear said. However, it’s “necessary,” to protect against the spread of coronavirus.

“We’re going to do our very best to make sure when kids need us,” he said.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services did not provide more detail about how the state is deciding when to send in-person investigators. But a state social worker who spoke with  WFPL News said the state is limiting in-person visits to instances where there is an injury. WFPL has agreed to keep the social worker anonymous, because she fears she will lose her job for speaking to the media.

The social worker said when there is a high-risk situation for a child, social workers use a screening tool to determine if anyone in the household has COVID-19 or has been exposed. If there is a risk of exposure, the decision to visit in-person is determined on a case-by-case basis. If there is an injury, she said an investigator will go to the home. She said her branch doesn’t have any N-95 masks for investigating social workers, but does have other kinds of face-masks and gloves to get through about a month, depending on the amount of referrals they have to investigate.

The social worker said the virus has put her and her colleagues in the gut-wrenching position of weighing their own personal health and the health of their families against the safety and well-being of children.

“That’s a concern – that we might mess up just because we can’t go into the home and really do a thorough job like we normally do,” she said.

For the short-term though, and given the circumstances, she said, she thinks the process is working. It’s the long-term that gives her concern.

Rebekah Farley, of Boys & Girls Haven, worries the state response to potential child abuse during COVID-19 won’t be enough.

“What we did have in place, which probably wasn’t enough to start with, has now been removed. And so my fear is that children are going to be hurt. Children are going to be hurt,” Farley said.

A Perfect Storm Of Risk Factors

While social distancing measures may allow child abuse and neglect to fly under the radar, child welfare advocates also point to a perfect storm of other risk factors created by the pandemic.

“Home is not a safe place for many, many children in our community,” Bullock said. “They’re actually more at risk now than ever.”

For one, since schools and day care centers are closed, children who were already in abusive homes are spending more time there, Farley said. Then there’s the incredible pressure families are facing due to the pandemic: financial hardship, disruption of relationships and fear of the virus.

“Whenever you have any sort of trauma, or changes in the home, transitions, we tend to see spikes in abuse because you see stress levels rise,” Farley said.

Stress is also a factor in domestic violence, which is often connected to child abuse, according to Elizabeth Wessels-Martin, who runs the Center for Women and Families, a shelter in Louisville for survivors of domestic violence and their families. Wessels-Martin said abuse and domestic violence are often about an abuser feeling the need to assert control over the people in their household when they feel out of control in other areas of life.

“We have a real sense of loss of control right now. People are losing their jobs. This COVID-19 is incredibly scary,” Wessels-Martin said.

Wessels-Martin is also concerned that because liquor stores are open, people still have easy access to alcohol – another risk factor for abuse.

The Center for Women and Families initially predicted they would see a spike in calls due to the pandemic. But so far, calls have remained steady. Based on what she’s heard from her employees and other shelters in the region, Wessels-Martin thinks calls haven’t increased because people stuck in abusive situations are now under the constant watch of their abusers.

“Victims are feeling trapped because they are now being isolated or quarantined with perpetrators or potential perpetrators,” she said.

People in an unsafe home environment can reach out to the Center for Women and Families on Facebook and Instagram, which are both monitored 24/7. Wessels-Martin said reaching out through social media platforms is a good option for people who can’t get to a private place away from their abuser to make a phone call.

How to report suspected child abuse

Kentucky Child abuse hotline: 1-800-752-6200

Tennessee Child abuse hotline: 877-237-0004

Illinois Child abuse hotline: 1-800-252-2873

Indiana Child abuse hotline: 1-800-800-5556

You can also report online here:

If it’s an emergency, call 911

The number for The Center for Women and Families: 1-844-237-2331

Here are some warning signs the average community member could look out for even in the midst of COVID-19, provided by the Family and Children’s Place:

Signs in children (may be overheard in backyards, at the grocery store with parents, talking on the phone with a teacher, etc.)

  • Injuries such as bruises, fractures, or burns that are unexplained or that don’t match the given explanation
  • Statements that he or she was physically or sexually abused
  • Loss of previously acquired developmental skills

Signs in parents (may be witnessed at the parent’s workplace, at the grocery store, in interactions with neighbors, etc.)

  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Consistently belittles or berates the child, and describes the child with negative terms such as “worthless” or “evil”
  • Uses harsh physical discipline
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