With schools, day care centers and preschools around Illinois shut down as part of statewide efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, calls to the Department of Children and Family Services’ abuse and neglect hotline have dropped dramatically over the past week.
But child welfare experts and others don’t believe this decline reflects a decrease in abuse; on the contrary, many fear that children are now at a greater risk of being hurt as families, many facing additional stress over work and health issues, hunker down in isolation.
Because children aren’t in school or child care, the teachers, social workers and counselors most likely to spot signs of abuse and who are required by state law to report those allegations, can’t.
“Unfortunately, we know there aren’t changes in the number of children being abused or neglected,” DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said.
During the week of March 9, before Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s order to close all schools, DCFS received 6,672 reports of abuse and neglect via the statewide hotline — 91% by phone and 9% through an online reporting system.
Pritzker’s school shutdown order went into effect the following Tuesday, March 17, and as parents began to lose their jobs or were ordered to work from home, the number of hotline reports plummeted by 45% to 3,675 that week, the DCFS figures show.
The hotline receives about 950 calls a day during peak times — about 6,650 a week — according to a 2019 report.
The steep drop comes at a perilous moment for families. Child welfare experts worry that the uncertainty and anxiety caused by the coronavirus and the impact it will have on people’s jobs, their ability to pay bills or make rent will put children in increased danger at home.
“The risk of child abuse and neglect just shot through the roof,” said Kate Gordon Eller, an attorney and founder of The Gordon Foundation, a Chicago-based child welfare nonprofit. “The stress on everybody is growing every day. People are not able to maintain the same income. Then you have all these kids who are home all day. And it’s indefinite.”
The situation may worsen in the weeks to come. Strokosch said he expects to see the number of reports of abuse and neglect tumble further in the next week.
Following Pritzker’s shelter-at-home order, which went into effect on Saturday, children are even more removed from the public eye, likely spending less time outside and with emergency access to doctors and dentists, who are designated as mandated reporters because they are legally required to alert the state when they suspect abuse or neglect.
The system, he said, relies on people notifying the agency of these concerns, though DCFS has faced criticism when the hotline wasn’t able to accept calls as they came in and was hampered by inefficiency and inadequate technology. School officials report allegations of abuse to DCFS more than most other categories of workers, including police or medical personnel, Strokosch said.
“If we had a family who was in crisis before, the additional pressure of COVID-19 puts them at greater risk,” Strokosch said.
Research shows that the risk of child abuse rises in times of economic stress, said Char Rivette, executive director of the nonprofit Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center. And reports of abuse and neglect typically drop during the summer when children are at home or when other events keep children away from school, such as the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike late last year, Rivette said. But the unprecedented nature of the current crisis has left workers particularly uneasy.
“We’re very concerned,” Rivette said. “We know abuse happens in isolation, especially sexual abuse. All of these kids are staying home with family members, and those are the people most likely to abuse kids.”
The center, which works with Chicago police and DCFS to interview children in sexual abuse investigations, also has seen its case numbers drop dramatically. The office went from 10 to 15 cases a day to three to four, Rivette said.
In the meantime, Rivette said her organization and the dozens of other child advocacy centers across the state are working to provide information to parents to help lower tensions and protect children from sexual abuse, especially if additional family members have joined the household.
For parents who are “extremely stressed and worry they might abuse their children,” the Arlington Heights-based nonprofit Shelter Inc., recently added the number of the National Parent Helpline to its list of resources, said Patricia Cinquini, the communication and grant manager for the group that provides emergency shelter and other services for children and adolescents.
Last Tuesday, the first day children across the state stayed home following Pritzker’s order to close all schools, Cinquini wrote on the nonprofit’s website that she feared the social isolation of the shutdown, along with concerns about health, job security and other issues, could create “a perfect storm” leading to abuse.
Children and teenagers who are victims of abuse or neglect may not now be able to call for help because they are not alone or are more likely to be overheard, Cinquini said. Nor can they easily run away from an abusive home or seek shelter with friends.
“If they’re couch surfing, other families aren’t as willing to have them come to them,” she said. “So many of them are forced to stay in dangerous situations because they have no place to go.”
Teachers are doing their best to stay in touch with students who may be at risk, said Andrew Johnson, a social science teacher and college adviser at Westinghouse College Prep, a high school in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. He said he has sent out individual emails checking on students but the majority have not responded. A few replied with two words: “I’m fine.”
“It’s paralyzing to think of all the situations that some of my students must find themselves in,” Johnson said. “And what can I do? Nothing. I feel powerless as an educator to be able to reach out to students effectively.”
Ryan Kinney, a counselor who works with Johnson at Westinghouse, said he has made hundreds of hotline reports to DCFS over the last decade. In the last week, he enlisted his colleagues and school principal to reach out to students he is most concerned about who didn’t respond to his initial emails.
But the process took days.
“God forbid it might be a life-or-death situation,” he said.
If he suspected the student’s situation to be dire while in school, he would alert Chicago police or DCFS. Without seeing his students, he has no way to know if a situation is deteriorating.
“That’s what keeps me up at night,” Kinney said, “What don’t we know is going on right now?”
DCFS’ Strokosch said the agency needs family members and neighbors now more than ever to report their suspicions to the hotline.
“Do not assume that someone else will report it,” he said. “You might be the only person seeing it.”
And if the reports come in, he said, child protection investigators will respond. Beyond that, he said, there’s little more DCFS can do.
Last Friday afternoon, longtime DCFS investigator Stephen Mittons sat in his car outside a red brick three-flat before he went inside to investigate an allegation of neglect that had come in earlier that day. In his pocket, he had hand sanitizer and a pair of latex gloves he had brought from home.
Mittons, who is also president of AFSCME Local 2081, the union for DCFS workers in Cook County, said school workers are the agency’s “eyes and ears” and often the first to notice a child with unexplained bruises. Now, he said, “we don’t have that teacher to see that the next day.”
But, he added: “We have a job to do. The world doesn’t stop.”