Before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools, houses of worship and after-school programs, the daily life of children brought them before many adults, such as teachers, counselors and pastors, who are both trained to see the signs of child abuse and mandated by the state to report possible cases of abuse.
But now, children who face abuse have limited interaction with adults outside their family, and, in particular, with trained and mandated reporters. Short of virtual interactions with teachers, children don’t have many opportunities to reach out to a trusted adult, and those who are trained in the signs of abuse have fewer opportunities to see those signs.
Since the stay-at-home order was first issued by Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. in mid-March, reports of child abuse have plummeted, prompting concern and a community call-to-action by child advocacy organizations from across the state.
In a joint statement, the executive directors of three statewide child advocacy organizations—the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance, the Children’s League of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance—issued a call to the general public for help detecting possible abuse and alerting officials who can intervene.
“Whether it is neighbors seeing kids at play, out in public with adults, or relatives and teachers interacting with them via Zoom or other video exchange, anyone having contact with children is urged to look for signs of abuse,” the statement says.
The statement from child advocacy groups outlines the signs of abuse. Signs include the child’s physical appearance, such as signs of bruises, marks and injuries, and questionable hygiene or attire; the child’s environment, such as signs of violence, drug and alcohol abuse or family dysfunction; the child’s behavior and effect, such as a change in mood or presentation, distress or outcries of abuse; a child’s engagement, such as changes in participation, interaction and communication; and the child’s supervision, such as access to a responsible adult and that adult’s level of involvement.
The statement said that a report to the Department and Child Services does not necessarily lead to a child being separated from his or her family, but rather, “The most common outcome is supplying services and support to families that need them.”
Stacy Gallagher, director of Children’s Cove, the child advocacy center that serves Barnstable County under the guidance of the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance, said that in April, which was Child Abuse Prevention Month, reports of abuse fell by between 80 and 90 percent.
Ms. Gallagher said that through teleconferencing services and services using appropriate personal protective equipment, Children’s Cove continues to respond to referrals of possible abuse.
“We’re trying to work with anything that does come,” Ms. Gallagher said, referring to reports of possible abuse, “but, the referrals aren’t coming.”
Ms. Gallagher said that referrals of possible abuse usually dip in the summertime, when kids are not in school, then rise again in September, when school resumes. But even then, she said, children attend summer camps where they have access to adults outside the family.
The situation now is different, she said, noting, “This is like an extremely long summer where kids don’t have any interaction and are confined to their home for a really long time and there is barely any communication from anybody that could report abuse.”
Ms. Gallagher said she is anticipating an influx of reports when communities begin to open back up, just as she would when school normally resumes in September. “But again,” she said, “this is different than anything we’ve ever seen. We have no idea when [the influx] will be.”
The joint statement from Massachusetts advocacy groups concludes by saying that “we are in a time like no other, with demands being made on everyone for our mutual safety. Watch the children around you as if they are your own.”
If you suspect abuse, you can call the Department of Children and Families Child-At-Risk Hotline at 800-792-5200. Reports may be anonymous.