Dolphin House child abuse case reports ultimately not slowed by pandemic

The Dolphin House Child Advocacy Center, shown with its lawn filled with pinwheels denoting National Child Abuse Prevention Month, saw a 23% increase in cases over the last year, despite fears that the pandemic would lead to more abuse going unreported. (Katharhynn Heidelberg/Montrose Daily Press)

Last April, child advocates were fearful that more abuse cases would be missed, with pandemic restrictions keeping kids at home, away from critical interaction with teachers and other professionals who are mandated to report suspected abuse.

But instead of case reports going down, for the Dolphin House Child Advocacy Center, they went up — by about 23%, over the prior year. The Dolphin House conducted 298 forensic interviews of primary victims — children who were sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, or who witnessed violence — and served 306 non-offending family members. (The numbers reflect Dolphin House cases throughout the 7th Judicial District’s six counties, with Montrose and Delta counties make up the bulk. They do not necessarily match arrest and prosecution records for offenses against children, because not all cases lead to an arrest or prosecution.)

“I would say that was because of the pandemic,” Dolphin House Executive Director Michelle Gottlieb said Tuesday. “Our numbers definitely increased. We saw a fairly significant increase in the number of interviews we did and the number of children we served. We kind of anticipated that.”

At the start of the declared pandemic last year, though, the fear was that fewer kids would be coming in, because although abuse would still likely take place, it might not be as reported, she said.

That seemed to hold for about the first month that pandemic restrictions went into effect, largely keeping kids home from school and activities where abuse signs would be noticed and reported.

But then, Gottlieb said, cases ticked up.

“Clearly, people were reporting,” she said, giving credit to observant members of the public and others who had taken it upon themselves to make reports.

School districts are a big component of reporting child abuse, but Gottlieb said that when kids were no longer in school, that made for a more difficult connection between potential victims and the teachers to whom they might ordinarily turn. Despite this, there were several instances in which teachers reported troubling things they noticed in homes when students were online.

“Teachers are to be credited with paying very close attention to the kiddos, even with that distance and screen between them. We also saw a lot of neighbors reporting. I think that is a credit,” Gottlieb said.

The Dolphin House further saw more kids coming in who had been witnesses to violence in their homes — something staffers and others had anticipated, as domestic abuse cases climbed during the beginning of the pandemic.

Most of the Dolphin House primary victims were sexual abuse victims, followed by physical abuse; this is consistent with the past several years, in which children were brought to the center because of reported sexual abuse more than for other types of abuse.

All abuse is serious, Gottlieb said and, this past year, the level of physical abuse was more severe. “While we didn’t necessarily see more victims of physical violence, the level of abuse they disclosed was worse,” she said.

“There was just a lot more opportunity for abusers to inflict more serious degrees of abuse on kiddos. Tensions are high when people are locked down together and in isolation like that.”

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and, said Gottlieb, being willing to listen to children is an important step in awareness and action.

“I think we need to have a better understanding when kids disclose these things that they’re not making up stories. The key to preventing child abuse is believing that it is happening,” she said.

Some signs of abuse include secretiveness, behavior changes and injuries that are not associated with normal activities for a child of a given age. The statewide site, co4kids.org contains information about the signs of neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

Suspected abuse can be reported via the hotline, 844-CO-4-KIDS (844-264-5437).

People who are witnessing active abuse should call 911.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only affected cases, but also hit Dolphin House operations. For a time, Gottlieb was unable to deploy the center’s mobile interview unit to reach more isolated areas of the 7th Judicial District, such as the West End.

The restrictions severely limited who could be in the center’s facility on South First Street in Montrose, which in turn shifted the extra work usually done by volunteers onto staff, and also put donations of goods and clothing on hiatus.

The Dolphin House had to hold off at first, until the transmissibility of the virus onto objects was better known. Staff, not volunteers, sorted the clothing donations.

“It slowed down our ability to have that service for a bit,” Gottlieb said.

The Dolphin House reached out to the families it served to assess their needs and then put the items together and set up a pick-up option.

The center has since resumed accepting clothing donations, based on findings of a low transmission risk and families are now allowed to come into the building to select their own items again.

Rigorous cleaning, masks and social distancing remain.

“At least we’re able to somewhat welcome back folks to drop off donations,” Gottlieb said.

Needs include clothing in all sizes, shoes and personal hygiene items.

As with any nonprofit, the need for cash donations is ongoing and Gottlieb said the center also would welcome more volunteers. (Information and applications can be found at Montrose-child-advocacy.org. Reach the Dolphin House by phone at 970-240-8655.)

The pandemic KO’d the Dolphin House’s traditional fundraisers, but there is good news. The nonprofit last year held its 5K run/walk virtually and drew participation far and wide. Gottlieb said it worked so well that the Dolphin House will again hold a virtual 5K run in October.

Other staples, the annual golf tournament and barn dance fundraisers, are for now back on tap and in-person.

“We are forging ahead,” Gottlieb said.

The golf tournament this year will be June 19 at Cobble Creek. To register, or to sponsor a hole, email info@dolphinhousecolorado.com

The barn dance, themed “Back to Our Boots,” has been set for Sept. 24.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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