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Child abuse, neglect happening behind closed doors now

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A decline in the number of reports the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) takes in a given month isn’t necessarily a positive sign.

Especially not now, as many families spend more time alone in their homes with schools and businesses closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

DCS took 18,026 reports in March, the most recent month for which data is available. That includes calls, faxes, emails and mail-ins.

In March 2019, DCS had 19,671 reports, a year-over-year decline of about 9%. The fear is this simply means fewer cases of child abuse and neglect are being reported now, not that those instances are actually decreasing.

“It really increases the probability that children who may be abused and neglected are not being seen by those who could make a report,” said Cindy Booth, CEO of Child Advocates. “… There may be something going on at home and no one knows.”

Losing a job — something much more common now than normal — doesn’t automatically turn a parent or guardian into a child abuser, Booth said, but it can be one of many stressors that exacerbates other issues in the home. 

Along with job loss, alcohol plays a role in abuse as well. According to Jami Schnurpel, director of survivor services at the Julian Center, an Indianapolis domestic violence shelter, alcohol is a direct factor in many of the cases the center handles.

“Throughout the last eight weeks or so, we have seen an increase in alcohol related stories of abuse and likewise, we have survivors who report self-medicating to cope with anxiety they have never felt before,” Schnurpel said. “The decrease in self-control that someone experiences when drinking and the stress of a big loss, or in the case of COVID-19, the stress of lost income, inability to socialize, or having to isolate is a recipe for disaster.”

Like many other organizations that help children and families, Child Advocates has gone from visiting children in person to doing visits virtually. That approach has been beneficial at times, Booth said, but with every person and system designed to protect children having to resort to video calls and chats, some things are inevitably slipping through the cracks.

The top three reporters of neglect, Booth said, are law enforcement, medical professionals and school staff.

Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, said teachers and other school staff keep in contact with students outside of an academic context.

Teachers have office hours, and staff are supposed to track their communication with students so they know who they’ve talked to.

School counselors, social workers and other support staff still reach out to families to ask how everything is going at home, Johnson said. Schools also host town halls by grade level, and some high school teachers have virtual  meetings with families.

“All of those systems and structures are still in place, even in this very different setting,” Johnson said.

The Julian Center is currently assisting 25 more people than it was this time last year in finding shelter, new housing or other services. Forty-five percent of those individuals are minors. Unless they are legally emancipated from their parents or guardian, a child must be accompanied by an adult to access services from the Julian Center.

Schnurpel said it is rare, but not unheard of, for children to be the primary or sole victim of violence in a household.

“Often a child is torn between loving or caring for the person who is hurting them and trying to cope with the pain that person is causing,” Schnurpel said. “The Julian Center provides a training around the neurological development of a person who has experienced trauma. Fundamentally, our brains are impacted by all of the trauma we experience, and how we cope with trauma large and small is based on our ability to fully understand why something is happening.”

Trauma falls into the category of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which can degenerate life through disrupted neurodevelopment and the adoption of harmful behaviors.

Protecting children from this kind of trauma — or at least helping them cope with it — creates a safer environment in the immediate term, but it can also go a long way in making sure children have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper. Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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