On the surface, a sharp decline in reported child abuse in Michigan would seem like good news.
But experts and child advocates warn that this ongoing pattern likely means thousands of abuse cases are going undetected as families shelter at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know the abuse is still happening. It’s just that the people who protect children don’t have their eyes on them,” said Blythe Tyler, president and CEO of CARE House of Oakland County. (Courtesy photo)
“This is very troubling to me,” said Blythe Tyler, president and CEO of CARE House of Oakland County, a nonprofit child welfare agency that conducts forensic interviews of reported child abuse cases.
“People say to me, ‘How do you do the work you do?’ But it’s more than the kids that come here. It’s the kids that never get here that I’m concerned about,” Tyler told Bridge Michigan.
According to data from Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, reports of child abuse plunged in the early months of the pandemic, as schools switched in the spring to virtual learning and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide shutdown order in March that lasted seven weeks.
Those acts left children isolated at home and physically apart from the largest single source for reporting suspected child abuse: teachers and other education professionals. School officials report about a fifth of all substantiated abuse cases, according to the Child Welfare League of America. Teachers, along with a range of other professionals, are mandated by state law to report suspected child abuse.
As the pandemic spread, children also were less likely to visit a doctor, which not only lowered child immunization rates but curtailed another important avenue in which potential abuse is identified and reported.
Given that about 80 percent of child abuse is committed by a parent, advocates say children’s isolation from teachers and doctors puts them at added risk for unreported abuse.
In April and May, according to MDHHS, there were 17,623 reported cases of child abuse ─ a 45 percent drop from the 32,095 cases reported over these same months in 2019.
Meanwhile, calls to the state child abuse hotline dropped by 50 percent within days of the governor’s stay-at-home order.
“That absolutely did concern us,” JooYeun Chang, executive director of the MDHHS Children’s Services Agency, told Bridge.
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As schools reopened in the fall, some with in-school learning, reports of child abuse picked up. But the numbers for September and October still lag by thousands of cases the totals reported for the same months in 2019.
In October 2019, according to Tyler, CARE house in Oakland County received 87 child abuse cases to investigate from law enforcement and Children’s Protective Services. This October, there were 56.
“That’s a significant drop for us,” Tyler said. “We know the abuse is still happening. It’s just that the people who protect children don’t have their eyes on them.”
Underlining what’s at stake, one Michigan school official said school boards and administrators must weigh the health risks of in-person schooling amid COVID-19 against what’s lost when kids aren’t in the classroom.
“Whether schools should be open to face-to-face learning is not as simple as it sounds,” said Dave Campbell, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency. (Courtesy photo)
“Whether schools should be open to face-to-face learning is not as simple as it sounds,” Dave Campbell, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency, told Bridge.
“Schools do far more to support students than just teach academics. We provide social support, emotional support. And we provide oversight over child well-being. That includes suspected cases of child abuse.”
But as the pandemic soars to record numbers in Michigan this fall, Campbell noted that more schools are reverting to remote learning in all grades.
On Nov. 15, Whitmer announced a range of new restrictions for three weeks, including a halt to in-person instruction at high schools and colleges. While Whitmer left it up to preschools and schools through eighth grade whether to allow in-person instruction, many districts have put all brick-and-mortar schooling on pause.
By the time of Whitmer’s order, the Detroit Public Schools Community District had already shifted from face-to-face schooling to online learning for all grades through Jan. 11. Weeks earlier, Grand Rapids Public Schools moved to all-remote learning through the end of the semester.
Compounding the potential risk to children, another advocate said, vulnerable families are up against an array of stress-inducing financial issues tied to the pandemic, including the threat of eviction and job loss.
“What’s really concerning to us is the families and children aren’t getting the support services they need,” said Matt Gillard, president and CEO of Michigan’s Children, a Lansing-based nonprofit advocacy organization.
“Food insecurity and housing instability are major factors long known to be drivers of neglect cases.”
National surveys have also found an uptick in drinking, particularly among families with children. Alcohol abuse in parents is linked to child abuse.
Regardless of the cause, the impact of abuse and neglect can be lifelong for children. It’s linked to a range of physical effects including diabetes, lung disease and high blood pressure. Research says it can impair brain development and lead to depression, suicide, substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder.
The state’s abuse report and investigation system is meant to protect children who cannot safely remain in their home, as well as provide critical support measures for at-risk families so their children do not have to be removed. According to MDHHS, 5,362 children were removed from their homes in 2019 and placed in foster care.
For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, Michigan had 17,348 confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect involving 27,807 children.
“In many cases, confirming child abuse or neglect does not mean the children are removed from the home because we work to keep families together safely when possible by providing services to the family,” MDHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton told Bridge in a statement.
As the number of child abuse reports fell, Chang of MDHHS said the department decided to focus on 14,000 families known to have risk factors associated with child abuse, as it trained some 200 of its existing Child Protective Services workers to reach out to these families beginning in spring.
The goal is to help families realize there are supports available to them, ranging from cash assistance to housing support and substance abuse and domestic violence counseling.
Chang said the state also launched a pilot program in June in partnership with Brilliant Detroit, a child support nonprofit, to provide intensive support services for 300 at-risk families in Detroit. The pilot connects families with peer mentors who offer support and “benefits navigators” who link families with community resources such as food, housing assistance, education and employment options.
“Hopefully we have been able to meet the needs of some of the families who are right on the edge,” Chang said.
But even as the state looks to these measures for urban families, child advocates fear the risk of abuse may be magnified in rural Michigan.
“That’s another factor of concern,” said Kellie Sefernick, coordinator of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Northeast Michigan, which investigates child abuse cases in Alpena County and three neighboring counties.
“People are more isolated up here. People homeschool their children. There’s not a lot of outside activities for children where they have contact with adults. If you had to think about taking your child to dance class after you’ve worked all day and you’ve got to drive 30 miles one way, that’s the situation we’re in.”
Sefernick said the majority of its reported cases are sexual abuse, some in children as young as infants, as well as cases that combine sexual and physical abuse that includes bruises and broken bones.
With access to trusted adults outside the family, Sefernick said, children can be silent prey to what happens inside the home.
“We know that a lot of these cases are within the family. But if you don’t have a trusted adult like a teacher or a secretary or a lunch lady you can go to, that poses a problem.
“What’s the solution to that? I would rack my brain on that one, how can we get a trusted adult in a child victim’s life?”
“We are having to ask more and more for children to advocate for themselves,” said Melissa Werkmen, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County. (Courtesy photo)
At the Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County, Executive Director Melissa Werkman said its child abuse cases for 2020 are averaging about 30 percent below the totals for 2019, though she fears the numbers are higher.
“We were very concerned going into this, especially when we went into the quarantine period that we were going to see an exponential increase in abuse, especially because kids were home and they weren’t being attended to.”
Since 2004, the center has coordinated with area teachers to reach out to elementary students from kindergarten through fourth grade across the county with lessons on body safety called Kids Have Rights ─ what’s appropriate touch, what’s not ─ meant to encourage students who may have been abused to reach out to school staff.
Werkman said the pandemic forced the center to convert the program into virtual classroom lessons, with troubling results.
“By this time of year, we normally would have received 20 to 25 disclosures of abuse from that. So far, we have none.”
Werkman said it’s all but impossible to replicate in a Zoom session the relationship of trust built in personal contact between a teacher and child in a classroom.
“We sat down multiple times during this pandemic to ask how can we reach kids. Every solution we really had turned back to teachers. But they are seeing kids on a screen.”
Werkman said children abused at home are not likely to feel safe to report that abuse in a Zoom session, especially if the abuser’s in the same room.
“They would not be able to identify someone who is safe to disclose to.”
Searching for other avenues to reach children, Werkman said, the center partnered this year with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department to produce a series of videos on body safety that children can view at home.
“Unfortunately, because of the time we are in, we are having to ask more and more for children to advocate for themselves,” she said. “In better times, we should be able to rely on adults to provide that reporting and support for them.”