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Child abuse risk higher during coronavirus outbreak

With parents under stress from the coronavirus pandemic, the risk of child abuse has gone up — just as kids have less contact with mandatory child abuse reporters such as teachers.

Child abuse and neglect assessments have dipped as reports of suspected problems go down. No one knows what is actually happening to babies and kids behind closed doors, said Lisa O’Connor, executive director of the Family Nurturing Center, which serves more than 600 kids and their families each year who have risk factors for abuse and neglect in Jackson and Josephine counties.

“It is a recipe for abuse,” O’Connor said. “We probably won’t know what’s happened until kids go back to school. Educators are usually among those who make the highest number of reports. They keep their eyes on the kiddos.”

Courts aren’t seeing an increase in the number of new abuse and neglect cases, said Jennifer Mylenek, executive director for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Jackson and Josephine counties.

But, Mylenek noted, “I predict there will be a landslide of cases in the next couple of months.”

CASAs are volunteers who spend time with abused and neglected kids and people in their lives, then make recommendations to judges overseeing cases. The CASA volunteers are staying in close contact with their kids, albeit remotely, Mylenek said.

Although those who help kids and parents are bracing for the worst, they’re also working behind the scenes and finding creative ways to support families.

Some parents are already involved in the child welfare and criminal justice system because they committed child abuse and neglect.

Many have struggled with abuse risk factors such as poverty, hunger, domestic violence, addiction and mental illness.

Other parents were doing relatively well — until businesses closed or sent employees home to work remotely, their kids could no longer go to school and they faced a new world of uncertainty.

Now many parents are pulling quadruple duty, watching their kids, home-schooling, working from home and tackling household chores.

“I think there will be a whole population that will start to understand what our folks in distress have been dealing with. If this doesn’t build empathy, nothing will,” O’Connor said.

The Family Nurturing Center helps parents build their skills, provides relief nursery child care, educational classrooms, parent support groups and fun, positive activities for families.

Studies show that among families that received support from a relief nursery, 95% of children required no foster care.

For kids already in the foster care system, they were able to exit foster care twice as quickly as those whose families didn’t get services.

But with the state under a “Stay Home, Save Lives” order to limit contact with others, the Family Nurturing Center has had to stop most of its in-person services.

“I worry about social isolation,” O’Connor said.

She said employees are working from home and still checking in with families daily by phone. They aren’t going inside homes anymore, although they can still meet outside at a distance from each other.

Administrative Assistant Sue Zavada is stationed at home, answering the phone for the Family Nurturing Center and giving out information about services and support.

“I’m the front desk person, and the phones have been very quiet. I think the media is doing a fairly good job of trying to say what help is out there,” Zavada said.

The Oregon Department of Human Services is also doing a good job sending out regular updates about how social services in the community may have changed and how people can still get help, she said.

Zavada said parents don’t have to be clients of the Family Nurturing Center to call. The number is 541-779-5242 and the website for more information is familynurturingcenter.org.

“We encourage anyone to call. That’s my job at the front desk. I’m at home with the calls forwarded to my cellphone so that we don’t miss any calls. I don’t want any parent in the community or any community member to feel unsupported,” she said.

Zavada can describe center services and refer families to other organizations in the community.

If she doesn’t know of a group helping with a specific need, she recommends parents call 211. Nationwide, calling 211 is a way to get information about services.

“We want to make sure that parents know that those safety nets are still there. You can call and talk to someone. You can ask questions. It’s OK to be anxious and worried — as we all are,” Zavada said.

She often finds herself referring people to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest health news on coronavirus. See cdc.gov for updates.

Diapers and baby formula are running low at the Family Nurturing Center, so Zavada is directing parents to The Pregnancy Center, which runs a mobile parent pantry. The 24-hour helpline there is 541-772-1921.

Although Oregonians are under orders to practice social distancing whenever possible, Zavada said it’s important to keep communicating by phone and remotely — especially as stress builds and parents’ patience with their kids grows thin.

“You can feel it coming. If you’re a parent, we all know that feeling very well,” she said. “Keep talking to others. Reach out if you need help. We will help you find it.”

O’Connor advised parents to keep an eye on their own emotions and stress. Kids pick up on that and can start acting out — especially if they already have behavioral issues. That can create a vicious cycle that puts more strain on parents.

“That’s where problems happen,” she said.

O’Connor said it’s important for parents to take it easy on themselves and to not expect to be perfect, especially as they juggle several roles at the same time.

That can be hard when everyone else is on their best behavior in public and diaper commercials portray babies and toddlers as nothing but snuggly, smiling angels.

The troubling truth is that children under age 6 are at the highest risk for abuse and neglect — making up almost half of abused kids in Oregon.

“You don’t have to try to be the best parent. Just be present and loving,” O’Connor said.

Statewide, the Oregon Department of Human Services is encouraging Oregonians to report suspected child abuse and neglect.

DHS is continuing to operate the 24-hour Child Abuse Hotline at 1-855-503-7233. If a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

Hotline screeners accept calls from any concerned person. Mandatory reporters such as teachers must call if they believe a child has suffered abuse or a person has abused a child.

Types of abuse include neglect, physical injury, mental and emotional injury, sexual abuse and threats of harm.

At the same time, DHS acknowledges that parents face increased burdens during the coronavirus crisis.

They may lack access to meals or medical care, have known exposure to COVID-19 or people with respiratory illness symptoms or be in close contact with someone who is at high risk of being infected with the virus, DHS said.

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon has posted a list of all Oregon school districts with links to their meal plans during COVID-19 school closures. See oregonhunger.org/covid-19/.

To apply for health insurance through the Oregon Health Plan at any time of the year, go to one.oregon.gov.

DHS is encouraging people to check in with families by phone, email or at a safe distance.

“As we grapple with isolation and uncertainty, let’s connect with one another in safe ways to continue to build the connected, generous communities we all need,” said Becky Jones, executive director of Oregon Child Abuse Intervention Centers.

Sunny Petit, press secretary for DHS, is working from home, caring for her three children plus a foster child.

She said going in to the office for work can actually be more calm and less stressful than being at home. Many working parents don’t have that mental break now.

Some families have lost access to grandparents who provided child care and a safety valve, Petit said.

Older people face a greater risk of dying from COVID-19. People who are elderly or have health conditions like heart disease, lung problems, diabetes and compromised immune systems have been warned to stay home and avoid contact with others.

As hard as it is, Petit said keeping a sense of humor can help parents weather the storm.

Jokes circulated on social media that parents suspended or expelled their kids from “school” on their very first day of home schooling.

Petit said parents and non-parents alike can laugh and acknowledge the stress of parenting by talking about kids as if they are co-workers.

“Remember to try to find the humor in each situation,” she said. “Refer to your children as your co-workers. You can say, ‘My co-worker pooped his pants today — twice.’”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Jamie Lusch photo illustration