The Department of Social Services (DSS) has seen a 50 percent drop in Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline calls since March 11, 2020, roughly the same time schools began going on spring break and students have not returned due to COVID-19 shutdowns.
This drop, representatives believe, is due to the lack of reports from teachers as students are out of school.
Teachers, educators, child care providers, and other professions are mandated reporters and are required to report suspected child abuse. Educators and child care providers make the largest number of hotline calls during the year.
In a recent release, Jennifer Tidball, acting director for the Department of Social Services said they are “often our state’s best radar on a child’s well-being because children are in school or at child care each day.”
Other mandated reporters include law enforcement, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, probation or parole officers, and ministers.
According to Sara Smith, deputy director of the Children’s Division, the number of calls have been even lower than the usual dropoff during summer. Why? Because of the COVID-19 shutdowns, children have not only been unable to attend school, but cannot attend community centers, after school programs, sports programs, and other situations where they would have access to a safe adult like they would during summer.
“We always get a drop of calls over the summer, but it still isn’t reflective of what we are seeing now,” said Smith. “Peak times for the hotline where we have the highest volume of calls is usually August through October and then again March through May. We do drop off in numbers a little bit over the summer, but not as much as we are seeing now.”
These drastic dips in hotline calls is not something they have seen before, said Smith.
“This is uncharted territory because over the summer we have that network of summer school and community programs, sports programs, church, daycare, and we just don’t have that happening right now.”
This is an even more unique situation, said Smith, because parents are facing additional stressors with COVID-19 shutdowns such as possible loss of jobs and income, kids being home for extended periods of time, needing more food than if they were at school, requiring homeschooling, and needing activities to keep them occupied.
Community members, she said, are the key during this time to helping keep children safe. Checking in with children and families, asking questions, and keeping an eye out for any suspicion of abuse is how community members can help.
“It’s really going to take the community to help make sure that these kids are safe during this time,” said Smith. “I know we can’t physically reach out, but call, text, FaceTime if you’re able to and just check in.”
Smith said asking questions like what the children ate for breakfast or lunch or what activities they have been doing during the day can help determine if the child is receiving basic needs.
Continuing to build and keep rapport with the child and the child’s family is also helpful.
“Reach out to the parents to see if there is anything that they need,” said Smith. “Keep that verbal contact going and if you can, some kind of virtual contact, even though we can’t physically be with children during this time.”
If anyone suspects child abuse or neglect, Smith urges them to call the hotline number at 1-800-392-3738. The Children’s Division Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline (CA/NHU) is a toll-free telephone line which is answered seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For hearing and speech impaired, please contact Relay Missouri 1-800-735-2466/voice or 1-800-735-2966/text phone.
“Our hotline team members and our frontline field workers are all still there, ready to respond and help families,” said Smith. “They are working 24/7 and are still available and able to help link with community resources and make sure kids are safe.”
For more information on the Children’s Division and the Missouri Department of Social Services, visit dss.mo.gov.