Pandemic lockdowns and restrictions kept many people home from jobs and kids home from school for about a year. Regulations were meant to protect people from the deadly COVID-19 virus. Isolation, however, created ripe environments for abuse, especially among children. But that doesn't mean more cases were reported.
The number of total reports to Hamilton County Children's Services last year was 11,216, down from 12,583 reports in 2019, according to Alex Patsfall, intake screening and after-hours response section chief at Hamilton County Children's Services.
"I'd say about (last) March, our numbers plummeted in terms of the number of people that were calling in reports of abuse and neglect," she said. "And really, that is likely because all of our mandated reporters are no longer having contact with children, So our teachers, our daycare providers; people were scared to take their children to doctors, pediatricians."
Of those reports, 6,927 were assigned to a caseworker last year, down from 7,467 in 2019. The rest of the reports were documented.
"Certainly, it was underreported just because children were not being seen outside of their homes," Patsfall said.
The number of alleged physical abuse cases at Cincinnati Children's Hospital also dropped last year, according to Shannon Kettler, senior media relations associate.
In 2020, there were 169 child patients seen, down from 203 the previous year.
Patsfall says, in addition to the drop-off of reported cases, the kinds of reports Children's Services received changed, too.
"I will say, is that since the pandemic, we have seen an increase in domestic violence cases. And we have seen an increase in neglect cases around housing, food insecurity, ability to meet basic needs, etc. So those are the two main areas as I see an increase in cases that I think have been fueled by the pandemic," she said.
Teachers and other caregivers were still able to make some reports, she said, because for many it was the first time they were able to see into a child's home and hear what was happening to students. But as kids started going back to school last month, she says reports started climbing again.
The numbers in late March weren't at exactly pre-COVID rates, but they were increasing the more children had interactions with people outside of their homes, which is an important key to intervening in child abuse cases. And while just over half of all reports of abuse come from mandated reporters, like teachers and nurses, watchful friends and family members comprise 30-40% of reports, depending on the month.
Patsfall says anyone with concerns that a child may be experiencing abuse can call the 24-hour hotline number: 513-241-KIDS (5437).
Even if a person isn't positive abuse is happening, it makes a difference just to make the report, she says. All cases are documented even if a caseworker is not assigned. And repeated reports about a child who may be in danger could eventually show a pattern of possible abuse that Children's Services employees can investigate.
"So, if they are concerned, and maybe they're like, 'Well, I don't really have that much information, but this is what I have.' They'd be surprised," she said. "There might be another report that we got a week ago from somebody else."
While people may live different lifestyles, if a child's safety is on the line, she said, it's always worth making the phone call. Anonymous reports are accepted from non-mandated callers.