BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Human Services received just 939 reports of child abuse and neglect in April, a 40% decrease over the same period in 2019.

At surface level, a steep drop in reports of child abuse might seem like a step in the right direction. This time, experts and activists know better than to celebrate the occasion. The real picture of child abuse in the time of coronavirus is far bleaker, said Marlys Baker, who works in child protection services for the department.

"There isn’t less child abuse. There are only fewer reports of it," Baker said. "We know that there are children out there being abused and neglected because there have always been children out there being abused and neglected."

Baker and experts across the country fear the rapid decline in abuse reporting is a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In North Dakota, schools have been closed since March 15 in response to the virus, and they'll remain shuttered through at least the end of the school year. Teachers generally make about a quarter of all child abuse and neglect reports to the state, but right now, students aren't seeing their instructors in school, and that means there are fewer adults looking out for signs of mistreatment, Baker said.

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Making matters worse, spring is usually when the department receives the most reports because teachers want to get help to children before the school year is over, Baker said. Last year, April and May made up the two highest reporting months of the year.

It’s not just teachers who aren’t interacting with children as they normally would, Baker said. Other professionals who work with children, like doctors, dentists, therapists and daycare workers, likely aren’t seeing them as much during the pandemic either.

The lack of reporting has put a hitch in the normally effective process by which child victims of abuse can seek guidance or get out of a traumatic situation.

The department and law enforcement refer children who may have experienced abuse, neglect or trauma to places like the Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center in Bismarck. Once there, social workers and counselors conduct forensic interviews with children to learn what happened to them. The interview can be crucial in investigating an act of abuse and ensuring the child’s safety going forward.

But since the outbreak grabbed ahold of North Dakota in mid March, the center has seen only about half as many children coming for forensic interviews as it normally would, said Paula Condol, the center’s executive director. There’s been a similar drop in forensic interviews at the center’s Fargo location. Meanwhile, the number of children in need of mental health counseling during the pandemic has skyrocketed beyond the center's capacity to offer it, Condol said.

Stress and isolation

The substantial decline in reports is doubly troubling because studies have shown that instances of child abuse and neglect tend to increase during natural disasters and economic downturns, Baker and Condol said.

"Right now, we’re experiencing a lot of social stress, so reasonably we’d expect those numbers to go up as they would after a flood or some other disaster," Baker said. "The reason we’re not seeing an increase now is because the people who usually tell us about (abuse and neglect) are not seeing the children right now."

Baker worries the isolation that many families find themselves in could only add to stress felt by parents, particularly of young children. Due to the serious threat COVID-19 poses for people over 65, many parents may not be receiving any caregiving help from grandparents or extended family members.

Marlys Baker is a Child Protection Services administrator with the North Dakota Department of Human Services. Photo submitted
Marlys Baker is a Child Protection Services administrator with the North Dakota Department of Human Services. Photo submitted

The anxiety brought on by the pandemic puts parents who ordinarily would never mistreat their children at a much higher risk of acting abusively, Condol said.

“Then, we have that population of people who do abuse kids under normal circumstances. Those people also know that right now there’s nobody looking for a black eye for a child — they’re not looking to see if a kid’s not getting up in the morning because they were being sexually abused the night before,” Condol said.

Parents perpetrate about 80% of child abuse and neglect, according to National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Preventing abuse, speaking out

Baker expects the department will receive an uptick in reports when next school year begins in fall and students start opening up to teachers and counselors about abuse they experienced during the time away from school. Condol said her organization is "bracing for the impact" of the anticipated post-coronavirus jump in cases of abuse.

In the meantime, the experts agree there are positive actions that can be taken by parents and members of the community to counteract the harsh conditions for children.

Parents should understand that children are feeling stress during the pandemic just like they are, Baker said. Kids have also lost their daily routines and access to friends and family, she added.

Baker encourages parents to be self-aware of when they’re wearing thin. That could mean putting themselves in a “self timeout” to calm down instead of trying to respond to their child’s third temper tantrum of the day. She also recommends having an outdoor recess for kids a couple times a day to let out pent-up energy.

Baker and Condol called upon delivery drivers, grocery store workers and even passers-by in the community to make reports with department if they have any suspicions of child abuse or neglect.

Signs of physical abuse can include bruising or other injuries that are not explained or appear to be inflicted. Child victims of sexual abuse may talk about inappropriate touching by someone in their home or display unusual sexual knowledge or behavior for their age. Neglectful parents may not look after their children's primary needs or expose them to drugs and other unsafe items.

If you notice signs of physical or sexual abuse, neglect or psychological mistreatment in a child, please contact your local Human Service Zone and make a report. If a child appears to be in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1.

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