Hidden child abuse feared amid pandemic

Danielle Recchia, a registered nurse and sexual assault nurse examiner, at The Dolphin House Child Advocacy Center in 2019. The center and Montrose County Child Protective Services fear child abuse and neglect may be going on that isn’t being reported because of the COVID-19 emergency. 

Child welfare organizations have seen a drop in calls reporting abuse and neglect since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic — and that’s worrisome, local representatives said.

The pandemic declaration, along with state orders that suspended many businesses and closed schools, means family stress may be rising at a time when fewer mandated reporters are able to keep an eye out for abuse and neglect.

Statewide since the emergency declarations and orders, calls to hotlines have dropped by about 50 percent, said Stephanie Holsinger, Adult and Child Protective Services program manager for Montrose County Human Services.

“That’s actually terrifying,” she said. “We also recognize that families are going to (be) impacted for a while.”

At present, households may be protected from having their utilities disconnected or eviction, but such protections are not permanent. Debt continues to mount at a time when adults whose jobs were not part of essential businesses are out of work, adding to financial stress, Holsinger said. Such stresses can drive physical abuse of children, or cause their key needs to be neglected, she explained. Children trapped at home with an abusive or neglectful adult have fewer resources.

“We are concerned about what’s going on right now that is not being reported,” Holsinger said.

Montrose County Human Services relies heavily on mandated reporters, like child care providers and school staff members, who, by law, must report suspected abuse and neglect.

Child care facilities are on the state’s list of businesses that can phase in reopening as part of Gov. Jared Polis’ new “safer at home” order, which on Monday begins to take the place of his earlier “stay home” order. Schools, however, are closed to in-person instruction for the remainder of the academic year.

“It’s going to be quite a while until we get to anything that resembles normalcy, and that’s going to be hard on our (county) residents as well,” Holsinger said.

The stay-home orders reduced activities to essential ones, leaving some people feeling trapped and struggling to make a dramatic shift. Those conditions can turn what was previously a minor stressor into something more, Holsinger said.

“It’s easy to lash out. Some people, even people with lots of tools in their toolbox, are still struggling. I would ask that people check on their friends and neighbors.”

Representatives of The Dolphin House Child Advocacy share Holsinger’s concerns.

“The fact that so many of our families are now unemployed or underemployed, and they also are in the position of having to educate their kids, and in some cases, not have the appropriate resources — all of those things increase stress,” Dolphin House Executive Director Michelle Gottlieb said.

“Anytime you’re in isolation with folks for a time, I think that would stress anybody. … This is a very unique time we’re living through right now. It’s increasing the stress already being experienced by families and is introducing stress.”

The advocacy center serves child victims of physical and sexual abuse, as well as domestic violence, and their non-offending family members. It serves kids in the six-county 7th Judicial District with forensic interviews and exams in a child-friendly environment, plus connects them and their families with resources. The Dolphin Center is separate from Child Protective Services, but sees children that agency and law enforcement agencies refer.

“For a while, when school was first let out, we definitely saw a slowdown. We were seeing fewer kids, simply because a lot of those kids don’t have eyes on them they would normally, if they were attending schools and daycare,” Gottlieb said.

“We are starting to see the cases pick back up. My feeling is we will continue to see them pick up.”

Gottlieb said the Dolphin House saw between 280-320 cases last year and overall, numbers are up for the first quarter this year, compared with last. These numbers are from the whole judicial district, not just Montrose, and not every case that comes into the Dolphin House leads to an arrest or prosecution.

Reports of sexual abuse usually outnumber Dolphin House cases involving physical abuse.

Gottlieb said since the pandemic was declared, the advocacy center saw a decline in sex abuse reports, but that could have to do with child victims being isolated with their abusers, she also said.

“It might be some time before we see the full impact of that,” Gottlieb said.

Pandemic or not, people feeling stress should reach out for help, remove themselves temporarily from the situation, and try to calm down so that they don’t wind up lashing out physically at others in their homes, she said.

Mental health resources can be accessed through The Center for Mental Health’s support line, 970-252-6220.

Hilltop Family Resource Center is available at 540 S. First St. in Montrose, 970-252-7445. Hilltop’s resources include wraparound services to strengthen families; domestic violence and sexual assault services and parental education.

As part of Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, the Dolphin House has been posting regular clips with tips on its Facebook page that people can view.

“With technology being what it is, there are a lot of resources available online if families choose to access them,” Gottlieb said.

“There are a great deal of resources available. I just think in the heat of the moment, oftentimes, that becomes possibly more difficult for people to realize and reach out for help.”

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

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