Even as Pandemic Winds Down, Child Abuse, Neglect Still Underreported, Experts Worry

Even as Pandemic Winds Down, Child Abuse, Neglect Still Underreported, Experts Worry

As the coronavirus pandemic began last year, children quickly became some of the most vulnerable when it comes to abuse and neglect.

Experts believe those cases would have otherwise been caught by school officials, who are trained to look for abuse. Dr. Craig Hanthorn is one of those professionals, a school psychologist at Western Hills University High School. He told WCPO when stay-at-home orders pulled children out of the classroom, calls to child protective services went down drastically.

“I'd say probably 50% of my report cases are brought to my attention by someone else, other than the victim itself,” he said. “Since the pandemic hit we’ve had astronomical numbers of kids we aren’t able to check in with. We were reporting online so we’re not getting to visibly lay eyes on the students.” Those challenges weren’t unique to Western Hills: Other agencies tasked with protecting children found a decline in child abuse reports during the lockdown. For example, in April of 2020, referrals to Job and Family Services in Ohio were down 42% from 2019.

That trend was also found in Indiana and Kentucky. The executive director of the Family Nurturing Center, Jane Herms, said those calls have started to return to the number of calls in previous years; however, they are more severe.

“Typically teachers and childcare providers are two of the number one reporters in the community, and these people were not seeing kids; they didn't have eyes on them, and so reports went down,” said Herms. “Children are more at risk. That's turned around a little bit. We hear anecdotally in Kentucky and Ohio that reports are climbing again as kids are having more access to teachers. They're back in school. They're seeing family members are out in the neighborhoods.”

Herms believes limited access to resources and higher stress levels throughout the pandemic may have been contributing factors to some of the abuse. “When you see extreme changes in behavior in a child or in a parent, a parent who seems to be very stressed, who seems to be keeping their child away maybe from the mainstream, might be an area of concern,” she said. “Bruises on young children. You should never really see bruising in infants. For toddlers, if you see bruises on the knees and the elbows, that's pretty normal.

"But if you see them behind the ears or on the back, those would be cause for concern, when you see really significant behavioral changes," Herms continued. "There are everyday incidences that we really need to be just as concerned about, that we have a better opportunity to really prevent and address soon and provide education and resources and help for families.”

Dr. Hanthorn understands the importance of helping families — so much so that he brings his work home with him. His family is blended: While coaching basketball at Western Hills several years ago, he noticed a couple of his players, DeKarion Branch and Jamon Norman, were having trouble at home, so he stepped in to help and moved them into his home.

He has legal custody of Branch and Norman in addition to his adopted son, Graham. “I can come to him if I need anything,” said Norman, who describes Hanthorn as a father figure. “I tried to get my grades better and everything when I came here. I didn’t have to worry about anything anymore. It was more about school and basketball. I was eating good. I didn't have to cook all the time.”

Hanthorn said he wanted the young men to have a safe place where they could focus on school and graduating, but while he was able to step in and help them, he acknowledges that there are so many more children that need the same support.

“We face an issue where parents are working three and four jobs to make ends meet,” said Hanthorn. “How are they supposed to help their student at home with homework when there's three other children in the house and that student is the oldest, so they're responsible for helping the younger three with homework, cooking dinner, getting them to bed, getting them up in the morning?”

Hanthorn says regardless of the pressure, he would do it all again. “I would never want to lose being the dad, being coach, being whatever," he said. "Those are titles I don't take for granted."

If you know a family that is struggling or may be in need of resources, reach out to the Family Nurturing Center. The Center provides a safe and structured environment for families to visit together. The Center also provides parenting education and coaching services. The Center's Kentucky office provides evidence-based therapies for children and adults impacted by abuse, prevention and education programs in the schools and other community settings, parenting programs and wellness activities.

Whitney Miller