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‘These kids depend on us’: Child abuse reports plummet during remote learning

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the pandemic hit Rhode Island in March and state leaders quickly decided it would be safer to learn from home, schools became ghost towns overnight.

The reasoning was relatively straightforward: coronavirus was spreading quickly, testing materials and protective equipment were scant and epidemiologists advised keeping distance from one another as the most practical short-term solution.

But with the closing of schools came a sudden drop off in child abuse and neglect reports made with the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families. In April, the first full month of remote learning, reports fell nearly 50% from the previous year. The reduced level continued throughout the rest of the school year, alarming some advocates.   

“I wish we could celebrate that decline,” Rhode Island Kids Count executive director Elizabeth Burke Bryant said. “What that data really shows us is a concern that we’re hearing less about suspected cases of abuse and neglect.”

Rhode Islanders by law are required to report any suspected child abuse or neglect, but many calls to DCYF come in through schools where children typically have the most interactions with adults outside of their immediate families, such as teachers, coaches and administrators.

And while state officials interviewed by Target 12 wouldn’t say definitively the end of in-person learning directly caused the reduction of child abuse and neglect reports, advocates and medical professionals have little doubt the two issues are connected.

Dr. Amy Goldberg, a pediatrician who specializes in child abuse pediatrics with the Lawrence Aubin Child Protection Center at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, said there’s no way to look at the decline in reports and conclude that abuse and neglect has decreased during the pandemic.

“It’s a reporting bias,” Goldberg said. “What are the safety nets for children? They’re schools.”

Now, as schools grapple with making in-person learning work again, concerns remain that the physical distance between children and adults could mean cases of abuse and neglect slip through the cracks.

“The kids need to be in school,” said Matthew Davis, a school resource officer in Cranston. “That’s their outlet.”  

‘There could be a death’

Davis has served Cranston schools for 13 years and prior to the pandemic it was common for students to come to him with issues related to abuse and neglect.

“There were days when I had two in one day,” he said. “It’s emotional because they were holding it in for so long. Some of these kids have been holding it in for years.”

Cranston school resource officer Matthew Davis. (Johnny Villella/WPRI)

School resource officers have been scrutinized in recent months, as police departments across the country have come under fire for issues tied to racial injustice. But Davis argues this is an area where officers play an integral role in protecting children.

“They think we just arrest kids,” he said. “It couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The dropoff in child abuse and neglect reports to DCYF corresponded with a decline in so-called “indicated reports,” which are found when child welfare officials investigate and conclude there is enough evidence to prove abuse or neglect happened. In April, investigators reported 106 indicated reports, a drop of 49% compared to the same month a year earlier.

During the summer, when students are typically out of school anyway, overall calls and indicated reports returned to levels comparable to prior years. But since school has resumed, and remote learning continues in many places, the gap between calls this year and in past years is widening again.

In September, the state reported 145 indicated reports compared to 209 a year earlier. Overall reports fell 33% to 605, according to the state.

Jennifer Griffith, who independently monitors DCYF as the state’s child advocate, told Target 12 she’s not certain the decline in reports means abuse and neglect is going underreported in Rhode Island. But she was nonetheless concerned with the trend and said the consequences could be dire.

“There could be a death, there could be a near-fatality, there could be continued abuse in the home,” Griffith said.

While understanding that each parent or guardian must make their own decisions about whether in-person learning or remote learning makes the most sense for their families, Griffith said she’s nonetheless encouraged that some students have returned to school buildings.

“The more children can be seen – it’s safer,” she said.

Dr. Goldberg, meanwhile, said the recent proliferation of certain technology, such as Zoom, has improved certain aspects of communicating and providing care to children, especially when it comes to mental health. But she warned that virtual interactions are no silver bullet and can make it tougher to identify certain problems, such as signs of abuse and neglect.

“There’s something lost without the in-person communication,” Goldberg said.

‘I need to know what’s happening in the room’

The majority of patients referred to Goldberg come through the emergency department, meaning the abuse has likely escalated to a more dangerous level.

Like DCYF, Goldberg saw a sudden drop in referrals during the shutdown. But unlike the prolonged period of fewer reports made to the state, Goldberg said patients started returning relatively quickly, and they continue to examine children in-person.

“I can’t do a physical exam of a child – the type of physical examination, which is really a head-to-toe examination, depending on the type of abuse – when it’s not in-person,” Goldberg said, adding there are too many unknowns that came along with Zoom calls.

“I can’t see who – perhaps – is not in the view of the camera, who could be influencing what’s happening,” Goldberg said. “I need to know what’s happening in the room, where I’m sitting, with the child.”

With more people being spread out than normal, Goldberg said it’s more important than ever right now for Rhode Islanders to remember that they are mandated reporters, meaning they are legally required to make a report if they suspect child abuse or neglect.

The law isn’t just about identifying cases, she added, but rather to “prevent child abuse – the terrible cases we’re thinking about – so we don’t get to that point.”

“We’re all interconnected in the concept of child welfare,” she explained. “It’s not a single agency that protects children, it’s our whole community.”  

DCYF interim director Kevin Aucoin told Target 12 he’s concerned about the decline in reports, noting that the trend is also happening at both the national and regional levels.

In an effort to improve outreach, Aucoin recently launched a new screening and response unit, designed to help families that may be struggling. Instead of waiting for a report, the new unit might help identify and intervene abuse and neglect before it even happens, he said.

But Aucoin is also expressing some hope that the return of in-person learning will result in more reports of child abuse and neglect.

“We are hopeful as we get into October there will be more children reporting to school in person and there will be less of a hybrid model,” he said.

‘Baby steps’

How much the return of schools might boost reports in the coming months, however, largely depends on how much in-person learning actually comes back.

State leaders in recent months have tussled with educators, who have consistently raised concerns about the health and safety of returning to the classroom during a pandemic

The issue came to a head earlier this month when Gov. Gina Raimondo slammed the Pawtucket School Committee for deciding to keep mostly remote learning. She offered a similar critique of the Warwick School Committee in August.  

“The children may suffer,” Raimondo said about Pawtucket. “Many of them will suffer lifelong hardship if you don’t try a little harder, and get a little more creative, and work a little harder to open the schools for the children.”

The comments evoked outrage from the Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance, which called her remarks “reprehensible,” pointing out a state walk-through of their district showed deficiencies in 12 of the 16 school buildings. The union quickly took out a full-page advertisement in the Valley Breeze, slamming the governor for her criticism.

“Apologies would be considered at this time!” the group wrote in the ad.

As of Oct. 17, the state reported at least 330 COVID-19 cases across all in-person and hybrid learning models, along with at least 245 cases across all virtual-learning programs.

Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken told Target 12 last week the state hasn’t seen any large clusters of cases in schools, but he said there may be some initial signs of in-school transmission.

“We have identified instances in which we could have seen limited in-school transmission,” he said. “But when you are talking about two or three cases, it is very hard to definitively say that hose people got sick from each other, as opposed to from another exposure, especially when people are so mobile and there is so much COVID in the community.”

At Rhode Island Kids Count, Bryant said figuring out schools is paramount to the long-term well-being of children. Child abuse and neglect, for example, has long-lasting effects on a person throughout their lives, she explained.

The sentiment was echoed in Cranston, where Williams said he was encouraged to see some students return to the classroom through the district’s hybrid model.

“It’s baby steps, but it’s baby steps in the right direction because these kids depend on us in these school,” he said.

  • The DCYF statewide toll-free hotline operates 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The hotline is is dedicated to the receipt of reports concerning abuse and neglect. The number is 1-800-RI-CHILD (1-800-742-4453). All calls are recorded.
  • The toll-free number for the new screening and response unit is 1-888-RI-FAMLY or 1-888-743-2659

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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