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Calls to Colorado’s Child Abuse Hotline Have Dropped—And That’s Not a Good Thing

With school closures and stay-at-home orders keeping mandatory reporters at a distance, vulnerable children have fewer ways to get help.

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During the week of March 2, 2020, the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline received 4,839 calls from teachers, coaches, pediatricians, neighbors, and others reporting concerns about a child’s well-being. Two weeks later, as schools started closing and the state ground to a halt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, that number dropped to 2,435.

Call volume has hovered around 2,500 since, according to Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the Office of Children, Youth, and Families, a division within the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS). And while Castillo Cohen would love to believe the 50 percent reduction indicates fewer children are experiencing harm and neglect, she knows that’s not the case. “When kids aren’t in school or attending extracurricular activities, we often see the call number drop because mandatory reporters don’t have eyes on kids,” she says. In other words, COVID-19 is separating youth living in potentially dangerous homes from the very people who can help them.

The CDHS oversees a number of initiatives designed to keep children across the state safe and healthy, such as foster care and nutrition services like SNAP. But without the hotline, a 24/7 service launched January 1, 2015, many of the families who need assistance would go unnoticed. More than 40 professions—including physicians, clergy, teachers, and coaches (see the full list here)—are mandatory reporters. By law, they must immediately tell CDHS about known or suspected incidents of child abuse or neglect. Signs can include a child who is undernourished, lacks appropriate clothing (like warm clothes in the winter), often left alone without proper supervision, and frequently displays unexplained bruising, burns, bites, and broken bones (find the complete list of signs here).

Mandatory reporters make the bulk of hotline claims in Colorado; in February of this year, teachers, school staff, or childcare providers alone comprised 40 percent of all calls, according to Castillo Cohen. Now that some daycares are on hold and schools have gone remote, these reporters are either only seeing kids via occasional video calls for virtual lessons—or not at all.

While mandatory reporters’ time with kids is down, many experts believe incidents of abuse have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s so much stress,” says Monica Fitzgerald, senior research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science. “The parenting role has gotten more demanding now that support structures like schools and daycare are gone—they can’t even drop their kids off for a playdate. On top of that, you may have lost your job or have a sick family member.” These stressors, along with the general isolation brought on by social distancing, all increase the risk of child abuse and neglect.

Thankfully, organizations across the state are trying to ensure kids get the help they need. Fitzgerald directs CU’s Center for Resilience and Wellbeing in Schools, which trains teachers and other school employees how to support children facing trauma. During the pandemic, Fitzgerald and her team are remotely teaching educators from 11 Boulder-area schools how to keep an eye on their students’ welfare, even though they’re not interacting with them face-to-face. Part of that strategy involves simply being observant—“Do you regularly hear an adult yelling in the background? Do the child’s surroundings appear to be reasonably clean and safe?” asks Fitzgerald—but it also requires teachers to directly ask pupils how they are coping. “If you’re concerned about a kid, set a regular time to check in,” Fitzgerald recommends. “Students are more likely to open up if their teacher is consistently asking them how they are.”

Of course, not all children are old enough to be in school or mature enough to let an adult know what’s going on at home. That’s why Castillo Cohen emphasizes the need for community members to remain vigilant for signs of distress, such as persistent sounds of fighting or crying—and not be afraid to call the hotline, even if they’re not 100 percent sure that abuse or neglect is occurring. “A myth that we need to bust is that people worry that they’ll make a call to the hotline and child protective services will come out and remove the kid,” Castillo Cohen says.

In reality, a call to the hotline sets off a human-Rube Goldberg machine of conversations and examinations. First, a team of professionals decides if your call should be screened into the Child Protection System (CPS) at all, or whether another agency, say, the Office of Early Childhood, which helps parents find child care and provides assistance for parents who can’t afford child care, can better provide the help a family needs. If the call does go to CPS, the report’s urgency is assessed: If the risk is deemed significant, CPS becomes involved immediately, while a low-risk situation is typically addressed within five working days. These determinations depend upon how dangerous the situation is (for example: does an abuser own a firearm?) and how vulnerable the kid in question may be (does he or she have a disability?).

Calls won’t be ignored during the pandemic because case workers are considered essential workers and are still conducting in-person safety assessments—interviewing the child in question, along with parents, siblings, and other family members. Often, case workers determine the child does not have to be removed from their home, either because abuse is not occurring or because the family simply needs some extra help. “Seventy percent of the time, services can be delivered right inside the home so that kids and families can get the support they need without ever having to be separated,” Castillo Cohen says. Those services can include receiving WIC or SNAP benefits, and counseling for the child or family.

Even groups that typically help kids after they’re involved with CPS are adjusting to COVID-19. Tennyson Center for Children, located in Denver, is one of the nonprofits CPS may recruit for in-home help. Its fastest-growing department is community-based services, which provides in-home therapy for children recovering from abuse or dealing with a mental illness. This assistance, along with the center’s daily treatment-and-school program, have been moved online to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, says CEO Ned Breslin. The transition took some effort. “At the beginning of March, we bought a ton of computers and wifi hotspots because a lot of the families who we work with are not connected,” he says. “Now that they’re connected, clinicians have had to figure out how to translate their practices to a virtual therapy session.”

Because play is helpful in treating a child who’s dealt with trauma, Breslin says, Tennyson has been delivering supplies for crafts and games along with, say, grocery store gift cards for food-insecure families. Clinicians can then play those games with patients virtually; in one basic art therapy technique, kids use clothespin figures with a variety of expressions (smiling, crying) to show how they’re feeling, an exercise that has translated well to tele-therapy.

Kids in untenable home situations can’t get this sort of help if CDHS doesn’t know about them. “I still think we live in a country where a lot of neighbors are afraid to ‘go there,’” Breslin says. “They don’t want to be accused of unnecessarily involving child protective services or police. But in order for us to help, we need to know about the situation.”

Call the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 844-CO-4-Kids if you believe a child may need help. For a full break-down of the warning signs of abuse and neglect, visit co4kids.org.

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