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Health, Science & Environment

Child Abuse Cases Returning to Normal Levels As Pandemic Wanes. But Long-Term Impacts Likely To Remain

A photo of a caregiver putting pinwheels into grass.
Courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare
Caregivers at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital are marking National Child Abuse Prevention Month by planting blue and silver pinwheels for the 1,840 children in the U.S. who died from abuse or neglect in 2019.

Rates of child abuse cases are typically stable year to year, according to Dr. Antoinette Laskey with Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital. But when the pandemic took hold last March, she said calls for service and people coming into clinics for support seemed to disappear in an instant.

“All of a sudden it seemed like the floor dropped out,” Laskey said. “Across the country and here in Utah, our clinics got really quiet, which was frightening to us because we know that child abuse doesn't just go away.”

She said what seemed to have happened was that children had nowhere to turn. Kids were not at school, where abuse reports come from most often. They also weren’t seeing friends or other community members.

With April designated as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, caregivers at Intermountain have marked the occasion by planting nearly 2,000 blue and silver pinwheels on the hospital’s lawn. An estimated 1,840 children in the U.S. died from abuse or neglect in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Data from the Utah Division of Child and Family Services shows child abuse cases in 2020 have been up slightly compared to previous years. That’s true even as the state saw a sharp decrease in abuse cases accepted for investigation, with about 22% fewer cases between April-June than at the same time a year before. The dropoff for school referrals was even more dramatic — falling from 774 between April-June 2019 to 99 in 2020.

While those rates have since largely stabilized, Laskey said she worries about children who have not received care and the potential long-term impacts that may cause.

“I can tell you that my concern is that when we talk to children, we are definitely hearing that the abuse was continuing throughout the pandemic,” she said. ”Obviously, the longer a child is exposed to either physical or sexual abuse, the more substantial the harm can be.”

Laskey said the other troubling trend last year was that domestic violence increased to levels not previously seen before. Even if children were not directly involved, just witnessing abuse from one parent to another can have lasting psychological consequences on children, she said.

Those deeper, unseen impacts of abuse will not be known for years, if ever. But they are something DCFS is hoping to investigate, according to public information officer Sarah Welliver.

In the meantime, she said the economic fallout from the pandemic, as well as the mental and emotional strain, have likely contributed to more abuse than usual.

“The majority of the cases we see are related to neglect, to child endangerment,” Welliver said. “We still aren’t fully out of the pandemic. And so the pressures that families are facing are still ongoing in that sense.”

Given all that has happened over the last year, Laskey said it is more important than ever that adults look out for children. All Utahns are considered mandated reporters, which means they have a legal obligation — not just a moral one — to speak up on behalf of children, she said. And even if someone suspects abuse or mistreatment is happening but is unsure, they should notify child protective services rather than remain silent.

“It's important to recognize that making the call doesn't mean that you're saying for sure that abuse has happened or for sure the parents are bad,” she said. “What you're doing is getting a child help from somebody who can figure out ‘What does this family need? What does this child need?’”

If you suspect child abuse or neglect is occurring, call the 24/7 hotline at 1-855-323-3237 or contact your local law enforcement agency.

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