Summit County officials expect spike in child abuse reports after shutdown is lifted
DILLON — April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and while officials around the state are reporting a considerable drop in the number of cases they’re seeing, the dip likely doesn’t reflect what’s actually happening in the Summit County community.
Last week, the Colorado Department of Human Services reported a staggering 50% decrease in calls to the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline since schools shut down statewide. The number of child abuse cases in Summit County also has dropped off dramatically. But individuals in the know say the decline is only an illusion and that the community might actually be facing more instances of abuse than normal.
“It’s concerning because we’re sure that everything that was happening before is happening still,” said Nicole Bortot, adult and family services program manager with the Summit County Department of Human Services. “And a lot of the complications have gotten worse. All those risk factors we talk about are really heightened right now.”
Bortot said that similar to the state, the number of child abuse cases in Summit County has dropped by about 50% over the past month, down to about four to five instead of the usual 10. Similarly, the TreeTop Child Advocacy Center — a facility that provides children who are victims of abuse or sex assault a safe and comforting environment to speak with law enforcement, advocates and mental health professionals — has reported a steep decline.
Krista Burdick, Treetop’s executive director, said that last year the center assisted in 83 cases and that operations continued to ramp up at the beginning of 2020, with almost 30 in the first three months. Over the past month since Summit County enacted its public health order, the center has seen three cases.
Burdick emphasized that despite the decline, the number of child abuse and sex assaults are likely up as parents are dealing with a myriad of new stress factors in their lives.
“I think we probably have a new wave of children who are experiencing abuse due to financial stress, anxiety and parents having to work from home,” Burdick said. “In a lot of ways, our entire lives have changed. Parents are having to carry a lot of extra weight by having to essentially home-school, taking on new roles and not being able to get support they’d normally get outside the home for themselves.”
In addition to new struggles facing parents and families, kids also haven’t had the opportunity to spend time with other trusted adults outside of their homes, like teachers and coaches, who Bortot said typically make up the majority of people who report child abuse.
“Right now, we know the regular contacts kids have with trusted adults, they no longer have,” Bortot said. “School is No. 1, but there’s also all the extended family members kids are no longer able to see, their coaches and even other kids’ parents. All those outside relationships are cut off right now.”
Both Bortot and Burdick noted that they’re bracing themselves for a considerable increase in cases — even beyond normal numbers — once stay-at-home restrictions are lifted and children are able to interact normally with others outside the house again.
Though, Bortot noted, there’s a chance that if students don’t return to school until after the summer, there could be a noticeable gap between the public health order being lifted and influxes of abuse cases.
In the meantime, state and local groups are doing what they can to raise awareness of the issue and prevent abuse from happening in the first place. Bortot called on members of the community to keep their eyes and ears open for signs of abuse, and take advantage of opportunities to connect and ask questions with children in their lives.
County officials are recommending trusted adults do their best to maintain regular contact though video streaming, or other online messaging platforms in case a child can’t share something out loud, and to generally be aware of anything concerning facing kids in their neighborhoods. Parents also should practice proper self-care, giving themselves breaks whenever necessary so they’re not tempted to lash out in any capacity.
The TreeTop center is about to launch a new online volunteer training program to help prepare for a potential surge in cases after the shutdown, and to help get out information about events and other outreach efforts. The center is also asking community members to get involved themselves in spreading the word about child abuse prevention by constructing pinwheels with their children and placing them outside their homes. For families that don’t have the necessary supplies, the center is offering to drop them off at their doors.
But most importantly, officials are urging any community members who seen signs of abuse or neglect to speak up.
“I think this can be hard for people to read about or to connect with,” Bortot said. “But at the end of the day, the message we want to send out is that making a report of abuse or neglect does more good than bad. A lot of people are scared to reach out. But it can really connect families with resources and the support they might need.”
Anyone concerned about the safety of a child should ask themselves the following questions:
- Are you noticing that the child’s caregivers are under significantly increased stress?
- Are there signs of physical violence?
- Does the family appear to be struggling with issues like food insecurity?
- Does the household appear unsafe?
- Is a young child spending long periods of time alone?
- Is a young child responsible for other siblings?
- Is there crying?
- If you ask the parent or caregiver about any of these issues, what is their reaction?
- Are your kids sharing concerning information about their friends?
For more signs of abuse and neglect, visit the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect hotline website at CO4kids.org/child-abuse-neglect.
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