The underreporting of child abuse cases during the pandemic may...

The underreporting of child abuse cases during the pandemic may be reminiscent of what happens when schools are out of session for the summer or holidays.  Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Child welfare advocates say they're concerned that child abuse and neglect may have increased sharply on Long Island during the coronavirus lockdown, as cases go unreported because kids no longer are around teachers, coaches and others who must report signs of abuse. 

Reports of child abuse and neglect in Nassau and Suffolk dropped by about 40% in each county in March and April, compared with the same period in 2019, county data shows. The drop in reported cases could indicate that many abuse cases have been under the radar since the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of schools and businesses in mid-March, experts said.

“A lot of the time, child abuse in America is a silent epidemic anyway,” said Clarice Murphy, victim assistance program director for SEPA Mujer, a nonprofit Latina immigrant rights group. “But particularly during this pandemic, it’s definitely, definitely more silent.”

Child abuse rates typically rise as job loss and economic instability increase, experts said. That was the case during the 2008 financial crisis and superstorm Sandy in 2012, said Keith Scott, director of education at the Safe Center of Long Island.

During the pandemic, thousands of Nassau and Suffolk County residents have lost their jobs. Schools and day cares are closed, so many parents must provide child care constantly. Children are more prone to act out when they are distressed. And people who abuse as a way to maintain power over partners or children may want to strengthen that control as they lose it in other areas, experts said. 

“It’s the perfect storm for child abuse because we have this high-stress environment but we don’t have as many services being provided to children,” Scott said.

“A lot of children are trapped at home with abusers, and you don’t have that social safety net of trained professionals mandated to” report signs of abuse, said Daphne Young, spokeswoman for Childhelp, an Arizona-based nonprofit for child abuse victims.

The reporting situation during the pandemic may be reminiscent of what happens when schools are out of session for the summer or holidays: The number of abuse reports drops, only to rise significantly when classes resume in September and January, experts said.

In Nassau, reports were down by 40% in March and April, to 864, compared with 1,451 during that period last year, according to Nassau’s Department of Social Services.

During the first two weeks of the shutdown alone, abuse reports dropped by 62.5%.

In Suffolk, abuse reports in March and April also were down by about 40% — to 976 compared with 1,647 during that period last year, according to Department of Social Services. The figures lacked two days of data from April 2020.

In New York City, child mistreatment reports dropped by 27% in March compared with last year, according to data from the Administration for Children's Services. 

Reports to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment — the main avenue for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect — are down slightly, although the precise number was not available, state officials said. Officials did not respond immediately to a request for more detailed information.

The registry, run by the state Office of Children and Family Services, is where mandatory reporters, such as social workers, law enforcement personnel, medical professionals and school staff must file reports when they suspect child abuse or mistreatment.

Nassau's Department of Social Services commissioner Nancy Nunziata.

Nassau's Department of Social Services commissioner Nancy Nunziata. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Child Protective Services can only investigate cases once they’ve been made through the state register, Nassau DSS commissioner Nancy Nunziata said.

Without those reports, the abuse continues, often with long-range effects for children, including psychological trauma, experts said.

“There’s no intervention happening at this point,” Murphy said.

Long Island's Child Protective Services agencies continue to investigate reports of abuse and neglect, officials said. Caseworkers are monitoring families in their system, connecting them with services such as food pantries and counseling, and taking children into protective custody when necessary, officials said.

But their jobs are more difficult in this climate, officials said. Caseworkers, considered essential workers during the pandemic, are operating under new protocols, including pre-screening of cases before visiting homes and conducting virtual interviews when possible, officials said. There are fewer caseworkers reporting for duty because many are quarantined. Also, residents are more likely to deny caseworkers entry to their homes out of fear of catching the virus.

Jericho schools Superintendent Hank Grishman, seen in Jericho on April...

Jericho schools Superintendent Hank Grishman, seen in Jericho on April 20. Credit: Howard Schnapp

School officials say they also are also trying to combat potential abuse or neglect. They are reaching out to families regularly by phone, email and FaceTime to check on their well-being, and teachers are in regular contact with students through virtual teaching.

But “having visual contact with kids is far better than virtual contact for us to assess” how they are doing, Jericho schools Superintendent Hank Grishman said.

Officials and experts are watching other markers that track resources used directly by families in crisis. 

One national child abuse hotline, Childhelp, had a 31% spike in calls in March and a 17% increase in April compared with the same period last year, Childhelp spokeswoman Daphne Young said.

Suffolk police saw a 7.2% increase in domestic violence calls in the first week of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Pause order compared with the March 15-21 period last year, according to the most recent data available. Calls then dropped by about 1.2% between April 1 to 19 from the same period last year.

In Nassau, the number of domestic violence calls to police increased by 10% between January and March 25 compared with that period last year, police department data shows.

But from March 25 through May 5, calls declined by 6.2% compared with last year. That could be because victims could not as easily leave their homes to report crimes to police, friends or counselors, said Nassau police Lt. Richard Lebrun.

CHILD ABUSE AND MISTREATMENT REPORTS

Nassau County:

Total reports in March and April 2019: 1,451

Total reports in March and April 2020: 864

Decrease: 40.5%

Suffolk County:

Total reports in March and April 2019: 1,647

Total reports in March and April 2020: 976*

Decrease: 40%

New York City:

Reports in March 2019: 6,273

Reports in March 2020: 4,568

Decrease: 27%

*Data lacking for two days in April

Sources: Nassau County; Suffolk County; New York City Administration for Children’s Services


CHILD PROTECTION RESOURCES

Call 911 for emergencies or immediate threats.

To report child abuse, call the statewide central register: 1-800-342-3720

Other resources:

  • Safe Center hotline: 516-542-0404. The center, a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence and child abuse, provides virtual trainings on how to spot symptoms of child abuse and prevent it: http://tscli.org/education-training/enough-abuse-campaign/
  • Childhelp national child abuse hotline: 1-800-4-a-child
  • Victim assistance program hotline at SEPA Mujer, a Latina immigrant rights organization: 833-762-9832

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