Pandemic could have led to more instances of unreported child abuse

NEW HANOVER COUNTY & COLUMBUS COUNTY (WWAY) — At the beginning of March, a was holding a tornado drill at Williams Township Elementary School in Columbus County.

That’s when Columbus County Schools Superintendent, Deanne Meadows said the teacher noticed something off with one of their students.

“When the student crouched down,” Meadows said, “there were spots– marks that were found on the student.”

The teacher reported the incident, something they haven’t had as much opportunity to do with children attending virtual learning.

“Teachers and school personnel have relationships with these kids,” said Holly Royals, New Hanover County’s child protective services program manager, “and kids feel safe in school and share that information. We think during that time period, when they weren’t seeing them as frequently, certainly that accounted for some of those reduction reports.”

There were 3,574 reports of abuse in New Hanover County throughout 2020, with a major dip in reports March and April, compared to 4,054 in 2019. But according to Isabella Hinds, president of the Cape Fear Ad Litem Guardian Association, that’s not because of a decrease in abuse. In fact, her organization has helping children in more extreme circumstances throughout the pandemic than they see normally see.

“It is absolutely the case that child abuse reports have gone down,” said Hinds. “And it is the source of considerable concern because we know that abuse didn’t go down, just the reporting has gone down.”

During the first part of the pandemic, outside sources like law enforcement, medical professionals, and school staff didn’t report as often. And because many remained behind closed doors to minimize coronavirus spread, many incidents of abuse remained there as well.

“Some of our typical reporters weren’t seeing the children,” explained Royals, “and so we think that had something to do with the reduction there.”

According to Karmen Smith, with Hope Harbor Domestic Violence Shelter, this isn’t limited to child abuse. According to a national study, domestic abuse is up 33 percent since last April. That’s why Smith said she’s seen more children caught in the timeline of abuse.

“You’ve got a lot of parents having lost their jobs,” said Smith, “you know, being in financial distress… if you’re already in a home where violence is rampant…. then that timeline is already being compacted.”

So though child abuse numbers are increasing back to their pre-pandemic numbers, it could mean men and women, like the teacher at Williams Township Elementary are spotting the signs of abuse.

“This is a way for us to continue to monitor their health and well-being while they are in school,” added Meadows.

According to Royals, all adults in North Carolina are mandatory reporters, meaning if you spot a child with signs of abuse, you are legally bound to report it.

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