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Child welfare advocates continue to worry about unreported abuse

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, state child welfare advocates have seen families in crisis and know children are likely experiencing abuse and neglect that is going unreported.

Advocates were alarmed last spring when calls to the state child abuse hotline plummeted by 70%, meaning children were isolated at home and fewer people were reporting suspected abuse. The number of calls to the hotline has steadily increased since then, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Since dropping from 15,401 calls in February to 7,952 in April, calls have averaged about 12,000 a month since July.

Advocates are also encouraged that schools are starting to slowly resume in-person learning, which will allow more children to be seen by teachers rather than stay isolated at home.

Sunny Petit, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the department relies on educators and school employees who are the top reporters of child abuse in the state. Educators are mandatory reporters and required to report suspected abuse.

“When schools transitioned to remote learning in late March, we saw a significant decrease in educators reporting child abuse due to the decrease in in-person contact and increase in virtual contact, which makes it difficult to see visual signs of abuse or noticeable patterns of behavior or concerns over time,” Petit said.

While DHS and other child welfare agencies are hopeful more reports will come with in-person learning, they know the children’s families will still need support to stabilize their homes and reduce the risk of abuse.

“We know that housing instability, economic instability, and food insecurity are all increasing during the pandemic and that working with families to meet these basic needs goes a long way towards supporting family well-being,” Petit said.

Tim Rusk, executive director of MountainStar Family Relief Nursery in Bend, said his child abuse prevention organization mostly serves children 5 and younger, which are the most likely age group to experience abuse and neglect.

“Because of the pandemic, they are in the home more than ever with adults who may be unbelievably stressed and frustrated and angry, and kids can be the nearest target,” Rusk said.

To prevent abuse, MountainStar works directly with families and offers support to young children and their parents. The work has been done virtually due to the virus, but the staff is still connecting with the families, Rusk said.

A recent survey of the families served at MountainStar showed they feel optimistic about the future, which is a motivation for Rusk and his staff to keep providing their services.

“I think part of our job is to have families optimistic about the future and focus on how they can change themselves,” Rusk said.

Kara Tachikawa, program director at MountainStar, said the pandemic has reduced the amount of time staff can visit with the families. Rather than having children in the early learning programs twice a week and doing hour-long home visits with parents, staff is seeing the children a few times each month and checking in with parents over 20-minute virtual meetings.

“It’s definitely a different level of connection, but I think it continues to help families,” Tachikawa said. “If they encounter an issue, they have someone to call.”

Tachikawa said families continue to be stressed and many are struggling with unemployment due to the pandemic.

Having schools reopen is a risk with the virus that causes COVID-19 still spreading in the region, but it will help families and the children, Tachikawa said. Older siblings in grade school will be able to talk with teachers. And MountainStar’s staff will see younger children more often.

“For kids who might be at risk of abuse and neglect, going to school even two days a week will be beneficial for them,” Tachikawa said.

More opportunities for children to interact with teachers and other mandatory reporters will also benefit the state’s foster care system, said Melissa Williams, director of Every Child Central Oregon, which assists foster families in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.

Williams said her organization is bracing for an increase in child abuse reports when children return to in-person learning. The organization is hoping to find more foster families in Central Oregon who may be able to help house the possible influx of children.

Central Oregon has 182 foster homes, but 108 of those families are related to the child. The remaining 74 homes are open for general need.

“If we could get to even just 100 general foster homes in 2021 I think that would be a major win for us,” Williams said. “It wouldn’t solve all problems but it would give our current homes a little bit of breathing room.”

Gil Levy, executive director of KIDS Center, a nonprofit child abuse intervention center in Bend, said the number of abuse evaluations has been steady, but he still hasn’t seen a major increase.

“I still feel that we will see a real uptick once society returns to a more normal level of function and when kids are truly back in school in-person,” Levy said. “It’s going to increase these reports even more than we are already seeing.”

Levy has noticed the children and families served by KIDS Center have seemed more traumatized than usual from navigating the pandemic while dealing with abuse.

“A lot of the children and families we are seeing are just exposed to a truly significant level of additional stress on top of what they might have experienced from an abuse incident,” Levy said.

“The level of trauma our clients are experiencing is really quite high.”

Levy is keeping a positive outlook since his organization has been able to meet the need through the pandemic and is preparing for an uptick of abuse cases in the new year.

“It’s been a tough year for all of us,” Levy said. “We came through 2020 and we are really excited to be feeling strong and able to provide these services. We are definitely here to do that in 2021. We are looking forward to things shifting and taking a turn for the positive.”

File -- Jamie Lusch photo illustration