MILWAUKEE - When COVID-19 closed classrooms, child advocates quickly noticed a startling trend. "It is definitely a concern," said Lance Jones, program manager with Kids Matter Inc. "Not just in Milwaukee County, but throughout the country."
Experts say the landscape of child abuse reporting changed.
There has been a shift in how often reports of child abuse and neglect are being filed, and by whom. "In Milwaukee County during the pandemic, the percentage of child abuse or neglect reports coming from educational professionals dropped 50 percent," said Jones.
Educators trained to spot abuse were not seeing the whole child. "And what that means is not that there's less child abuse, but it's taking longer to get help," said Susan Conwell, executive director, Kids Matter Inc. "At the same time, the number of reports coming from law enforcement professionals increased by 33 percent," said Jones.
Jones said during the pandemic, child abuse-related injuries worsened and self-reporting surged – with more children and teens asking for support. "That means that somebody has to step in and help with the children," said Conwell. In Milwaukee near Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Reservoir Avenue lies a safe haven. "It's hard to know where to get started," Conwell said.
Kids Matter Inc. supports foster parents and relatives who have taken children under their wings. "What most people don't know is that for every child who enters foster care, another 20 are taken in informally outside of foster care by friends, family," said Conwell. Founded more than two decades ago by Susan Conwell – a foster parent herself – the organization helps about 2,000 children in Milwaukee County per year. "For me, I just love the number of kids that are still in my life. That I’ve known since they were 12," said Conwell.
The one-stop-shop offers counseling, legal guidance, and tangible resources to help kids heal and thrive. "People will always have difficulties, but what we can change is how we as a society respond," said Jones. Jones said it not only takes a village to raise a child but to protect one too. "It is the role of the community to be the eyes of the system," said Jones. "There are over 500,000 pairs of eyes in Milwaukee County." He urges all community members to look around, and asks that if you suspect a child is being abused – to report it.
"You can never know if it's that tidbit of information that you provided that other people didn't have that makes the difference for the child," said Jones. "People are saving lives all the time," said Conwell. Community members can report cases of child abuse and neglect in Milwaukee County by calling 414-220-SAFE.
Additional resources can be found by calling Impact 211. Conwell and Jones said they expect to see a surge in child abuse reports this fall – when in-person learning resumes full-time.