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Pandemic cuts off avenues for reporting child abuse, adds to contributing factors

COVID-19 restrictions and the move to virtual learning closed avenues for reporting abuse.

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Many states are seeing a decrease in reports of child abuse during the pandemic, but experts say the data is deceiving.

COVID-19 restrictions and the move to virtual learning have closed off the typical reporting avenues, and the social isolation has exacerbated the conditions that foment abuse.

The Associated Press compiled statistics from state child welfare agencies over the past three years. It found more than 400,000 fewer child welfare concerns reported during the pandemic and 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations and assessments compared with the same period in 2019. Total reports and investigations decreased 18% nationally from March through November last year.

Dr. Neha Mehta is a pediatrician and medical director for the Audrey Hepburn Children at Risk Evaluation Center at Children's Hospital in New Orleans. Her facility has continued to operate through the pandemic, but she acknowledges that external factors have limited opportunity for people who need help.

"Many cases of abuse come forward when a child decides to open up to a trusted friend or a relative or a trusted teacher, usually when they're away from the abuser," Mehta said. "And so with children being more isolated now during the pandemic, there are fewer independent eyes looking at them."

Mehta added that care providers who are able to connect with victims are finding the household patterns that are harmful to children have been amplified in the pandemic -- mental health issues, domestic violence and substance abuse, for example. Victims have more severe injuries or find themselves in a "darker place" because of their ongoing isolation, she said.

"The children that we are seeing are coming in with increased symptoms of depression, increased self-harm ... or having thoughts about trying to kill themselves. We are seeing an increase in the acuity of what we do see," Mehta said.

The pandemic has revealed the importance of institutions that might have been taken for granted beforehand, according to the doctor. She stressed how schools are a critical venue for social interaction, and grandparents are important sources of guidance and respite for families. Both provide "another set of eyes" when it comes to the welfare of children.

Mehta recommends anyone with serious concerns about suspected child abuse contact the appropriate authorities. In addition, she suggests people reach out to parents and caregivers of children when they recognize signs of stress. An offer of support can go a long way toward staving off problems before they become acute, she said.