by Jessica Seitz, Director of Public Policy, Missouri KidsFirst
In times of instability and stress, the risk of child abuse and neglect increases. Yet as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the state, reports to the Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS)’s Child Abuse and Neglect hotline declined dramatically. In the first two weeks of closures, DSS announced a 50% drop in hotline calls.
As the state network of Child Advocacy Centers (CACs), the sudden decline in hotline calls alarmed our team at Missouri KidsFirst. Missouri’s fifteen regional CACs are the foundation of the investigation and prosecution of child physical and sexual abuse in our state, providing a child-friendly setting where children can be interviewed by multi-disciplinary team members (Children’s Division workers, law enforcement, prosecutors, juvenile officers and medical and mental health providers) and receive medical examinations, family advocacy and counseling services. In SFY 2019, Missouri CACs served over 11,000 children with the top source of referrals coming from the Department of Social Services. If hotline calls aren’t coming in, kids cannot be referred for those critical services to help them receive justice and healing from abuse.
COVID-19 has caused a semi-shutdown of our society and closures and activity cancellations have made kids less visible to the adults who often look out for their safety and well-being in schools, child care facilities, places of worship and other public areas. In Missouri, school and child care professionals make up the largest number of hotline reports. An unintended consequence of social distancing was that we lost a safety net for our kids. We need to create a new safety net because if teachers aren’t seeing kids every day, we as a community need to become more aware of child safety.
On April 1st, Missouri KidsFirst announced the #Essential4Kids campaign in time for Child Abuse Prevention Month. #Essential4Kids is a campaign designed to educate all adults on how to recognize and respond to child abuse and neglect in our communities during the COVID-19 crisis. Missouri KidsFirst urges all adults: family members, neighbors, essential workers serving families in grocery stores and pharmacies and delivering goods to homes, and school professionals who are still working with children virtually, to be aware of their responsibility to protect children. Some helpful guidance outlined in the resources includes:
- Trust your gut: If something does not look, sound or feel safe – report.
- Making a report is asking for help and services: When you report suspected abuse or neglect, you are asking for a professional to help a child and their family. You do not need proof. You are not making an accusation.
- You may be the only person to act: During these times of isolation, do not assume that someone else has already made the call. Get in touch with Children’s Division and let them know you are concerned. Anonymous reports are accepted.
- For school professionals working with kids virtually: Remember your role as a mandated reporter and check in with students to let them know you remain a supportive, caring adult in their lives.
All adults are essential when it comes to the safety of our kids. We encourage every Missourian interacting with children, virtually or in person, to be mindful of their well-being during this time. Reporting abuse or neglect cannot be postponed.
To learn more about the #Essential4Kids campaign and for other resources designed to protect kids during COVID-19 including resources for caregivers visit: www.missourikidsfirst.org/covid