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Child abuse continues to go underreported amid pandemic

Calls to report suspected child abuse and neglect fell sharply since the start of the pandemic, but advocates say child abuse has not gone down.

Calls to report suspected child abuse and neglect fell abruptly in the first months of the 2020 pandemic and remained below 2019 levels for the rest of the year. The lower number of reports does not reflect a lower amount of child abuse, however, according to advocates.

ChildLine, Pennsylvania’s abuse reporting hotline, referred fewer cases for investigation or services throughout the year, according to data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. ChildLine saw a 49.3 percent decline in cases referred between April 2020 and April 2019. By January 2021, referrals were down 23 percent from January 2020.

“We would always hope that there would be a reduction in reports. That would be a goal. We would love to put ourselves out of business through prevention efforts,” said Jon Rubin, deputy secretary of the DHS Office of Children, Youth and Families.

Doctors treating physical abuse injuries report they are seeing the same, if not more admissions of abused children into their hospitals.

Dr. Lori Frasier, a child abuse pediatrician, professor of pediatrics at Penn State Hershey and director of Penn State’s Center for the Protection of Children, said Penn State Hershey Medical Center saw about 200 consultations for child abuse in the past year, roughly the same as the year before.

“We see a lot of bruises, fractures, head trauma,” Frasier said. “We’re seeing a lot of special needs kids being severely neglected and even malnourished. We’ve seen probably more shaken babies this past year than we generally see in a year.”

The cause of the disparity between reports and actual abuse, experts said, was the pandemic.

“The most likely thing is that children are not being seeing by the mandated reporters,” said Dr. Rachel Berger, professor of pediatrics in clinical and translational medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and child of child advocacy at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

A mandated reporter, such as a teacher, doctor or daycare provider, is legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the relevant authorities.

Many kids haven’t been to school in months, leaving fewer opportunities to spot potential abuse. Meanwhile amid pandemic stresses and more time at home, there are also more opportunities for tempers to flare.

“A lot of families do live on the edge and this has tipped a lot of families over: loss of jobs, loss of resources, and trying to balance having children at home all the time while trying to keep a job,” Berger said.

The economic recession of 2008 caused a surge of severe head trauma cases of abuse, according to research conducted by Berger and colleagues from Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).

Doctors worry the recession caused by the pandemic could be causing a similar rise in abuse now.

“We’re hoping that some of the pandemic relief money buffers some of those economic consequences,” Frasier said.

Some state agencies are training mandated reporters to spot signs of abuse remotely.

Signs of potential abuse include numerous, unexplained injuries; sudden change in personality; chronic anxiety and expressed feelings of inadequacy; poor impulse control; demonstrating abuse behavior or talk; flinching or avoidance to being touched; cruelty to animals or others; and fear of a parent or caregiver.

DHS will release its annual report on abuse in May.

To report suspected abuse or neglect, call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.

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