May 14, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamey Dunn-Thomason
IGPA task force reports on protecting children from abuse during COVID-19 pandemic
Calls to state hotline have plummeted under stay-at-home order
URBANA — The University of Illinois System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) today released a report on protecting children from abuse and neglect during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Policy Spotlight released today, titled Children at Risk: Ensuring Child Safety During the Pandemic, is the second in a series from IGPA’s Task Force on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic. These Policy Spotlights expand on the task force’s broader reports by drilling down on specific dimensions of the challenges facing Illinois and presenting tools or recommendations to help meet those challenges.
This spotlight is focused on the plummet in reporting of suspected cases of child abuse and neglect since Illinois’ stay-at-home order went into effect. The first week under the order, there were 1,744 calls to the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline, compared to 3,667 the previous week. All the calls for April were 47% of the number of calls in April last year.
“Across the country, child advocates have grown increasingly concerned about the significant reduction in calls to reporting hotlines,” said spotlight co-author Betsy Goulet, coordinator of Child Advocacy Studies and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “In Illinois, the drop in calls is equally alarming. Almost every discussion of this pandemic phenomenon concludes with the awareness that children are currently separated from their teachers and school social workers — the mandated reporters who can intervene when a child discloses.”
The majority of calls to Illinois’ hotline come from school employees, who are required by state law to report suspected abuse. With schools closed and classes moved online for at least the rest of the school year, children who are at risk have become increasingly invisible, the report found.
In Illinois, other mandated reporters include all law enforcement personnel, medical personnel, educational personnel, child care personnel, crisis intervention workers, recreational and athletic program personnel, funeral directors, coroners and medical examiners.
Other states have recognized that essential employees, such as delivery workers and grocery store workers, are more likely to come into contact with children during the pandemic. These states are offering free training on how to recognize and report abuse. The authors recommend that state and local officials in Illinois partner with businesses and community groups to do the same.
“Even if they aren’t mandated reporters, all members of the community can play a role in protecting children,” said spotlight co-author Tamara Fuller, director of the Children and Family Research Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The Children’s Advocacy Centers of Illinois have put together a list of online training resources that can inform essential workers and other concerned adults on ways to recognize a child is unsafe and respond. This information should be disseminated widely through as many different community organizations as possible to increase the safety net.”
In addition to providing educational material to essential workers, the authors recommend that Illinois make efforts to remind health care workers, who are likely focused on COVID-19, to screen children they are in contact with through their work for signs of neglect and abuse whenever possible.
“It’s important to offer workable solutions to people and organizations that are already under strain from this crisis,” said spotlight co-author Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of IGPA and co-director of the Family Law & Policy Program in Urbana’s College of Law. “Strategies as simple as offering educational flyers and frequent reminders can make a difference. The key is getting those who might interact with children into the mindset to keep an eye out for warning signs and giving them the tools so they know how to report. Protecting children during this crisis is up to all of us.”
The report also suggests that firefighters and members of law enforcement, such as school resource officers, could be called on to walk neighborhoods as the weather gets warmer and children are playing outside. Local officials could consider offering “hire back” opportunities, meaning that officers and firefighters could sign up for extra shifts to increase the number of eyes and ears monitoring for signs of abuse.
Some of the stressors caused by the pandemic can contribute to increased cases of abuse and neglect. The authors note that a quarter of children are expected to experience food insecurity, as unemployment rates spike, and the state and country plunge into recession. The spotlight calls on Congress to extend the enhanced benefits under the Pandemic EBT Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Children Receiving Free or Reduced School Lunches through the summer.
“During these stressful times, the most vulnerable families are at greater risk,” said spotlight co-author Barbara Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center in Urbana-Champaign. “There are increasing concerns about the effects of the lack of access to enough food and the high rates of unemployment. Assuring that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits are extended and increased will be essential to protect children and their families.”
Members of the IGPA Task Force on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic continue to work on Policy Spotlights and reports. As their work is released, it will be available on the task force’s webpage.
If you suspect a child is being harmed by abuse or neglect or is at risk for abuse or neglect, call the 24-hour Child Abuse Hotline at 800-25-ABUSE (800-252-2873 or TTY 800-358-5117). If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call 911 first. Reports to the hotline are confidential.