While Child Abuse Call Centers Grew Quiet, Helpline Requests Surged

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Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

Quesetta Bell has been a call specialist at the 2-1-1 call center in Akron, Ohio, for a year now. On an average day, she said, an operator in her position might get between 80 and 150 calls, anything from a query about city services to reports of downed power lines.

“That was before,” Bell said in late March, referring to the spread of coronavirus, which has more than 25,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,500 deaths in Ohio. 

 Bell said call volume is up “five to six times.” You could track the pandemic experience from the questions callers asked: first a barrage of calls about health and safety, followed by requests for help with unemployment claims, then more desperate queries about late stimulus checks, piling up bills, and empty pantries. 

Recently, the most frequent call subjects are about the kind of family stressors that some child welfare advocates believe are too often confused as neglect by caseworkers and other professionals in the child welfare system.

“It’s rent and food right now,” Bell said.

As phones ring off the hook at helplines like Bell’s, child abuse hotlines across the country have gone eerily silent since mid-March. While most state data from April is not available yet, Florida has reported 19,000 calls, a 40 percent decline from last year’s total for that month. Calls in Texas fell to 23,000, a 25 percent drop.  

Quesetta Bell, call specialist for United Way of Summit County in Ohio, saw a massive spike in requests for help from parents. Photo courtesy of Bell.

With most schools closed for the year and families quarantined at home, children have faded from the view of the teachers and other “mandated reporters” most likely to call the local child protection agency out of concern for potential child abuse or neglect. 

Many child welfare professionals and advocates fear that child abuse and neglect have continued apace or, worse, intensified amid the stress induced by close quarters and unprecedented layoffs. Such concerns are not without precedent. In the immediate aftermath of the Ebola epidemic that swept West Africa five years ago, Sierra Leone saw teen pregnancy more than double

In March, a UNICEF news release, warned that: “Increased rates of abuse and exploitation of children have occurred during previous public health emergencies. School closures during the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, for example, contributed to spikes in child labor, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies.” 

Melissa Merrick, CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America, said she has been worried about the immense stress families are facing. And while reports of child abuse have declined, Merrick said, “I actually think true prevalence [of abuse and neglect] is likely to go up.”

Others worry that a heavy focus on decreased calls to child protection centers could stoke an unnecessary backlash against parents as America moves, slowly, out of shutdown and into stressful economic times.

“What you see happening is a child welfare system that is fomenting hype and hysteria around this issue, taking advantage of a public health crisis to scare people,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. 

Phone Lines Down

In a murky time for child welfare, the clearest and most indisputable data point is simply that reports of abuse and neglect plummeted and have stayed at record lows since. A study of 21 state reporting systems by the group Child Focus found an average decline of 18 percent when comparing March 2019 to March 2020, and 16 percent from February 2020 to March 2020.

The trend began in March. The Utah Department of Human Services told The Chronicle of Social Change that the state’s child abuse hotline volume dropped by 30 percent between the first two weeks of March and the last weeks, when schools were closed. In Washington, calls to the state’s child abuse hotline dropped 42 percent from March 8 — when school was still in session — to March 22, after the school year was suspended. 

These declines are hardly surprising since two-thirds of the reports to hotlines come from mandated reporters, professionals such as teachers, doctors and police officers. In most states, all school staff are required to report suspected maltreatment, and they account for 20 percent of reports nationwide each year.

While the decline in calls worries child welfare advocates who believe that abuse is being underreported during the coronavirus pandemic, others point out that reporting drops every summer and winter break as well. 

“No one claims every summer [when calls drop] that there’s a pandemic of child abuse,” said Wexler.

Despite this, fears of heightened and unseen abuse have dominated headlines since the pandemic’s start. An analysis by The Chronicle of all child welfare news aggregated by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, between mid-March and May 1, found that about 15 percent of 322 coronavirus-related articles, op-eds and editorials focused on reduced hotline calls and related fear of undetected abuse or neglect. 

“Please do not let social distancing be an excuse to engage in social isolation,” Iowa Child Welfare Ombudsman

A study of trends in 21 states found notable drops in maltreatment reports compared with 2019 and with the month before coronavirus. Source: ChildFocus

Kristie Hirschman told a local reporter from Harlan Online. “Each and every one of us needs to be vigilant and supportive of our neighbors, friends and families. We owe that to Iowa’s children.”

Dr. Robert Shapiro, who leads the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio, lamented to a local ABC affiliate in late April that “we do worry that a lot is going on behind closed doors and we’re not there to help kids.”  

Of the 4.3 million reports of maltreatment in 2018, 44 percent were deemed not worthy of investigation. Among those that were moved along for investigation, the majority are deemed parental neglect — a designation that many advocates and academics say is often little more than euphemism for poverty — not the physical harming of children. 

Still, there is some evidence that extreme emergency situations carry an elevated risk for children at home. 

 A 2000 study on incidences of child abuse following three natural disasters — Hurricane Hugo, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and Hurricane Andrew — found that child abuse escalated following two of the three catastrophes. The study authors acknowledged that more research was needed to conclusively determine whether a link between child abuse and disasters exists. A 2004 study on the aftermath of the 1999 Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina  found that incidences of child abuse did rise in the counties hardest hit by that catastrophe. 

“I think the moral of the story, what we know from studies elsewhere in the world during humanitarian crises … is that children are significantly at risk for abuse, and those children are now isolated and don’t have access to the helping factors they normally would,” said Deb Rosen, executive director of the Bivona Child Advocacy Center in Rochester, New York.

Reaching Out

But the evidence also shows that kids and parents are reaching out for help themselves. The United Way’s nationwide 211 center — the one Quesetta Bell takes calls for in Akron, Ohio — saw its volume of calls and texts quadruple in the weeks following the outbreak, according to spokesperson Southerlyn Reisig.

“Most calls are from people who need financial assistance and other essentials like food, baby and hygiene supplies and transportation,” Reisig said. 

In New Hampshire, the state’s child welfare agency partnered with nonprofit Waypoint to create a “warmline,” which parents and caregivers can call confidentially to talk to a family support specialist about stress, coping strategies or child behavior. The idea is to create a safe space for parents to get help without inviting a child protection investigation. 

Melissa Merrick, CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America: “I’m not in the camp of putting the onus on children, but these are unprecedented times” Photo: Steven Gross

In its first few weeks, the line has gotten about six dozen calls, according to Communications Director Kat Strange, “probably not as many calls as we expected, but they are calling with intense concerns.” A review of the log showed calls from a grandparent raising five kids, a homeless parent, a mother asking about how to handle custody issues during the pandemic.

Strange said the line may have had an “indirect” effect as well — since the organization began advertising it, traffic to Waypoint’s family support pages on the website has spiked, as have official referrals into the programs.

In Akron, Bell said 211  has been taking those types of calls, and steering parents to helpful mental health or family assistance options. United Way of Summit County, which operates the Akron call center, is also managing the county’s COVID-19 emergency fund. 

“If a woman calls, and you hear three kids screaming, she’s saying I’m just stressed, we feed off that and will send them to more resources,” Bell said. 

There is also evidence that children are taking it upon themselves to report abuse. The National Sexual Assault Hotline reported that March 2020 was the first month ever in which more than half of calls and messages came from minors, many of them reporting sexual abuse at home. 

The kinds of complaints made to the hotline of Child Help, a nonprofit serving abused, neglected and at-risk children, also changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A preteen girl phoned because, with schools closed, she was stuck at home with an abuser, according to Daphne Young, Child Help spokeswoman. A mom with shared custody called because her daughter is staying with her coronavirus-positive dad who took away the girl’s cell phone, effectively cutting her off from friends and relatives. And a sexual violence survivor sought help because her post-traumatic stress symptoms are flaring up during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Some of it is first-time emotional abuse related to the coronavirus,” Young explained. “One said, ‘My mom is usually pretty nice, but she told me I’m worthless and a drain on our household.’ It has nothing to do with the child but with the parent’s financial circumstances, and we give teens in these situations ways they can self-soothe.”

It is a notable shift in tenor for a call center used to fielding requests for basic family assistance. Some child welfare leaders suggested using public campaigns to urge kids to use popular interactive mediums, such as TikTok or online video games, to tell people if they are in danger. 

“I’m not in the camp of putting the onus on children, but these are unprecedented times,” said Merrick, of Prevent Child Abuse America. 

Nadra Nittle is a freelance reporter and can be reached at nnittle@chronicleofsocialchange.org. John Kelly can be reached at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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