Reports of child abuse and neglect dropped by 15% on Long Island in 2020 as more children were away from school buildings and adults who could recognize signs of abuse, according to county data and child welfare advocates.
Nassau County Child Protective Services received nearly 1,500 fewer reports in 2020 — 6,473, compared with 7,947 in 2019 — social services data shows.
Suffolk CPS had nearly 1,000 fewer reports of abuse and neglect in 2020 — 7,831, compared with 8,825 in 2019, county data shows.
Social services officials and outside experts say they suspect much of the drop-off in reports is due to children having to stay away from school, organized sports and clubs and, sometimes, medical appointments, for much of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic spread.
That meant children were interacting with fewer teachers, coaches, doctors and others who are trained to recognize indicators of abuse and are mandated to report their suspicions to authorities, the officials said.
"Knowing the high stress levels, knowing that families are isolated at home, we suspect that there's actually probably an increase in the number of cases, primarily the sex abuse cases, and they're just not getting reported," said Debra Lyons, of the Nassau County Child Advocacy Center at The Safe Center LI, a Bethpage-based nonprofit which provides support to victims of abuse.
"Child abuse has probably gone into the shadows … because there's just not enough eyes on children," said Daphne Young, spokeswoman for Childhelp, a nonprofit that operates a national child abuse help hotline.
The year 2020 started with an increase in reports of child abuse and neglect in both Nassau and Suffolk.
County data show that in February, abuse and neglect reports filed with CPS bureaus on Long Island jumped by 16% — to 1,523 compared with 1,303 in 2019.
Officials in Suffolk attributed the rise in reports in part to public reaction to the death of Thomas Valva, 8, on Jan. 17 in Center Moriches.
Thomas died of hypothermia after his father and his fiancee forced him and his brother to sleep in their unheated Center Moriches garage, authorities said. Michael Valva and fiancee Angela Pollina have pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child.
"The community as a whole has been a little bit more diligent in trying to find kids when they're in trouble and calling cases in," Sandra Davidson, Suffolk's chief deputy social services commissioner, said recently.
CPS reports fell by a total of 40% in Nassau and Suffolk counties in March and April, compared with those months in 2019. Schools shut down in mid-March 2020.
The pandemic had prompted schools to go to remote learning, cancel clubs, sports and other activities and made it more difficult for children to visit doctors.
Reports to CPS bureaus in both counties returned to more normal levels as the new school year started in September and many children returned to classrooms.
About 95% of schools on Long Island offered in-person classes full time or in combination with remote learning at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, according to data published in Newsday in November.
CPS reports in Nassau and Suffolk counties rose by 7% in October, to 1,630, compared with 1,522 in 2019.
Typically, more reports are filed in October than in any other month as students settle into classes and teachers get to know them, Long Island social services commissioners said.
Nassau ended 2020 with an 18.5% drop in reports of abuse and neglect, while reports in Suffolk declined by 11.2% for the year, data shows.
The trend also was evident in New York City, which logged 14,000 fewer abuse and neglect reports last year, a decrease of 21% compared with 2019, according to New York City Administration for Children's Services data.
Some experts expressed concern that instances of abuse have risen, even as CPS reports have dropped. Abuse typically rises in times of economic hardship and stress, conditions that many are facing in the pandemic.
Young said calls to the Childhelp hotline rose by 31% in 2020.
Part of the increase was due to children and families seeking help on their own, when normally teachers and coaches would have reported their cases to CPS, Young said.
"We're seeing more severe calls, more intense stories, and more children having to self-advocate," Young said.
Nonetheless, formal CPS reports are key to stopping abuse, child victim advocates said.
"We know there are children who need our help who are not getting those reports in," said Keith Scott, director of education of The Safe Center LI, where all victims of severe child abuse cases in Nassau are brought for counseling, support and joint investigations with law enforcement.
"How are we going to get to these children?" he asked.
CHILD ABUSE AND MISTREATMENT REPORTS
New York City:
Sources: Nassau and Suffolk County social services; NYC Children
CHILD PROTECTION RESOURCES
Call 911 for emergencies or immediate threats.
To report child abuse, call the statewide central register: 1-800-342-3720
- Safe Center hotline: 516-542-0404. The center, a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence and child abuse, also provide virtual trainings on how to spot symptoms of child abuse and prevent it, at: 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.