Calls to the state child abuse and neglect hotline have dropped 44% since Montana's public K-12 schools were closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, another sign of how a world altered by the coronavirus has upended what used to be normal social frameworks.
Teachers and school employees have frequent and sustained contact with students, which means they may be the best people in a child's life to spot suspected abuse or neglect. School employees are also mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect, meaning they must relay concerns to the state's Child and Family Services Division.
“Teachers have close and personal contact with kids on a daily basis and they really are a safety net for kids, and not having that contact does impact our report numbers,” said Marti Vining, the administrator of the state Child and Family Services Division, on Monday.
The hotline can be reached at 1-866-820-5437.
When Gov. Steve Bullock ordered public K-12 schools closed on March 15, a directive he's expected to extend this week, the intention was to keep children and Montanans safe from the spread of the coronavirus.
An unintended and unavoidable side effect has been the drop in calls to the hotline. The week prior to Bullock's order, the hotline received 765 calls. That number has dropped to an average of 425 calls per week since the closure.
Scott Appel, the executive director of CASA of Missoula, said it’s a challenge that's come of the new day-to-day reality of social distancing. CASA provides advocates for abused and neglected children.
“We rely on teachers and principals and other people active at schools to spot problems and then they’re obligated to report those,” Appel said. “When the kids aren’t in class, you’re sort of depending on other family members or neighbors or friends to see if there are things going on.”
Nikki Grossberg, deputy administrator of the state Child and Family Services, said schools are still engaging students through online distance learning, and that can be one window into a child's life.
“The things the schools are doing actually helps keep that contact with their kids and their families,” Grossberg said.
Vining added that family, friends, neighbors and others can all play a role in looking out for children and families who might need some extra support.
Even when it’s not possible to physically visit someone, Vining said people can use technology to stay in touch, gauge how others are doing and offer support or a connection to services.
“You can do that by just reaching out via FaceTime or phone contact,” Vining said. “We all have to be creative in how we stay connected to people we are or maybe are worried about."
Families that need support should reach out to any existing services they've used before, Vining said, or can call the hotline for help.
Abuse can also spike during times of stress, Vining said. As COVID-19 has reached across Montana, hitting more than 300 cases Monday, it's also imposed a financial toll, with more than 51,000 people filing for unemployment because of jobs or wages lost due to the statewide stay-at-home order. That can come on top of the weight of being confined at home, in addition to normal parenting pressure enhanced by children who aren't in school for part of the day.
“Any time stress increases in homes, the risk of child abuse and neglect increases,” Vining said. “The challenges our families are facing don’t just stop because of a pandemic is occurring, and sometimes those stresses can be exacerbated by isolation, financial insecurity, parenting stress. All those things can increase the stress that can lead to child abuse and neglect.”
Many of those who care for children who have been removed from their homes are also navigating a new landscape of FaceTime family visits and explaining to children both very young and in their teens why their day-to-day lives are dramatically changed.
Emma Anderson, the executive director of Watson Children's Shelter in Missoula, said the kids being cared for at the shelters, as well as the staff, are navigating their new reality together and leaning on digital alternatives to in-person interaction, though there are still challenges.
"This new technology that we have access to now allows kids to have face-to-face contact over the computer, and that's especially vital right now. But consider children who are 2 years old, 3 years old. Their capacity to be able to look at a computer screen or have a visit over the phone is really limited," Anderson said.
Skip Rosenthal, executive director of Youth Homes, said his agency and others are anticipating an increase in need for safe places for children as the pandemic persists.
“We are operating under the assumption that as this thing goes on, it will increase some of the stressors that families have,” Rosenthal said. “We’re operating under the assumption times will be stressful and the need to be available to these families and keep them engaged and supported will be heightened.”
Vining emphasized that child protection specialists are still doing their jobs, equipped with personal protective equipment and training on how to use it.
“The way we respond to child abuse and neglect really has not changed,” Vining said. “We still go out to the home and we investigate allegations. … We are still in homes to monitor child home visits and protection plans where we have children placed in the home.”
Child protection specialists are considered essential workers under the stay-at-home order issued by Bullock and by law must continue investigating reports of child abuse and neglect made to the hotline.
Some other operations have changed, such as family visitations conducted over Skype or FaceTime, if that's an option.
In some parts of the state, protection workers have joined with schools to stay in touch with students, such as in Glasgow, where workers are helping deliver lunches to children in rural areas.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.