CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WCHS) — Child welfare reports along with child abuse and neglect investigations took a staggering nose dive during the pandemic, but that isn’t necessarily positive news.
About 400,000 fewer child welfare concerns were reported and there was a drop of about 200,000 child abuse and neglect investigations, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Nationally, the decrease was about 18% of what it was the previous year. In West Virginia, the drop was about 26%, a trend child advocacy centers noticed too.
"Nationally, child advocacy centers across the country on average saw about a 50% decrease in children in 2020 compared to what they saw in 2019,” Maureen Runyon, with the CAMC Child Advocacy Center, said. “We didn't see quite that large of a decrease, but we did have about 30-33% in the number of children."
Advocates said the problems started during lockdowns when kids were not in school and away from safe adults, who kids tend to report to. "Imagine being a child and knowing the person who mistreats you, there's no getting away from that person,” Runyon said.
Out of sight of safe adults, calls to 911 went down.
"It was extremely sad,” Charleston police officer Ryan Spaulding said. “It was part of our frustration, knowing it was still going on and you really almost couldn't do anything about it." Investigators feared crimes against children were going unreported.
"It just wasn't being reported for various reasons,” Spaulding said. “Those kids were at home and not in school where sometimes they feel safe speaking to a counselor or a teacher."
In West Virginia, referrals to Child Protective Services in 2019 neared 42,000. That figure plummeted by about 8,000 in 2020, totaling 33,400.
"The numbers were not as high in 2020, but that, in my view, doesn't mean that it wasn't happening,” Kanawha County Judge Joanna Tabit said. “I'm confident to say it was an even greater pace."
On the bench for the last six years, Tabit believes child abuse cases have increased annually. "Sixty percent of our work is probably in abuse and neglect, and within the last year, it's probably 70%,” Tabit said.
On average, CAMC’s Child Advocacy Center sees about 40 children every month. "The first month that schools were back open in Kanawha County we had 88 referrals," Runyon said.
When the country reopened and kids were back in sight of teachers, counselors, coaches and friends, referrals skyrocketed. "Referrals just kept coming and coming,” Runyon said. “We were trying to figure out how we can see more of them.”
In Putnam County, assistant prosecuting attorney Kris Raynes noticed the same trend in case numbers. “A lot of these cases are one kid’s word against an adult’s word,” Raynes said. “People don’t want to believe that things like this happen to children.”
It takes a special team like Runyon, Spaulding, Tabit and Raynes to work on cases involving children. “When it works out and we're able to remove that child from whatever danger it might be or situation they’re in, it is extremely rewarding,” Spaulding said.
Rewarding moments found in the darkest of situations. "While it may be hard to hear the things they tell us, the fact we were able to make them comfortable enough that they trusted us, I feel like we can leave here every day and feel like we had a good day because of that,” Runyon said.
The Child Advocacy Center’s referrals are starting to level off to what they were before the pandemic.
To report child abuse or neglect in West Virginia, call 1-800-352-6513.