According to a recent study, Wisconsin has seen a 20% decrease in child abuse reports since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say that while the pandemic itself remains at the forefront, this knowledge has presented what is being called a “silent crisis.”
The fear is that children are spending more time at home, meaning there may be an increase in child maltreatment that is not being reported as these children are now limited in seeing trusted adults who they can safely explain their situations to.
Tasha Alexander, Eau Claire County’s social work manager, said Eau Claire saw a decrease in child abuse reports of about 9% last year.
“In 2020, Eau Claire County received a total of 1219 reports of child maltreatment while in 2019, we received 1342 reports,” Alexander said, “it seems worthy to note that while we had a decrease of 123 reports received, we only had a decrease of 16 referrals needing a CPS response.”
Alexander said that from 2007 to 2021, teachers reported more than 20% of child abuse cases, the highest percentage group of the data provided. But when the data is narrowed from March 2020 to present day, teachers account for less than 17%.
“From an anecdotal standpoint, not based on data,” Alexander said, “it seemed as if throughout the safer at home order in April and May, law enforcement was being contacted more often by concerned family members, neighbors, etc.”
Terri Ann Luethe, a teacher in Eau Claire, said that while she has not seen a decrease in abusive situations personally, she does believe it is more difficult to identify these situations in virtual classrooms.
“Teachers aren’t able to see the physical signs of abuse,” Luethe said, “and may also struggle to see the true emotional or mental states that students are arriving to classes in. Our ability to make strong connections and build trust with students is hindered during online instruction.”
Luethe added that students are often encouraged to speak up about abusive situations during a typical school year, but there has been no increase in advocacy during the pandemic.
The Eau Claire Police Department’s public information officer, Joshua Miller, said that despite pandemic limitations, ECPD is still working hard on instances of child abuse.
“Our investigators are still extremely busy investigating the cases which have been reported,” Miller said. “While we may or may not see an increase in reported cases once children are back full time, we will continue to devout all necessary resources to investigating these reports when they are presented to us.”
Protecting Eau Claire’s youth doesn’t have to fall solely on law enforcement and protective services. The experts offered ways for Eau Claire residents to get involved: developing connections with neighbors, donating to community organizations centered around child maltreatment and providing for people in need, becoming a respite or foster care provider and reporting instances of maltreatment can help children experiencing child abuse.
“Child Protective Services has been a greatly misunderstood area of work and intervention with families,” Alexander said,” With some people believing we do too much while others believing we do too little for children. We need to keep in mind that it is not just the role of a CPS agency in the county to care about the well-being of our children. Instead, this should be the role and goal of each community member.”