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The lurking danger of child abuse

Credit: Getty Images/RinoCdZ

Many people are struggling through the brutal fog of this continued pandemic, but the dark side of some of those struggles remains to be uncovered.

That’s the tragic possibility underneath the 15% drop in reports of child abuse and neglect on Long Island in 2020 vs. the year before.

Nobody thinks that abuse of the vulnerable has suddenly gotten less likely in Nassau or Suffolk counties. The worry is of a hidden epidemic.

Abuse often gets detected and reported when endangered children are in school, playing organized sports, or otherwise interacting with adults in positions of authority outside the home. In general, school personnel are on the front lines of this ongoing battle. With many schools having limited in-person hours and the usual activities canceled, there are fewer opportunities for teachers or counselors or coaches or dance instructors to hear concerning stories, notice a dip in grades or bruises on necks or arms, or interpret shellshocked faces. Attentive observation on Zoom can help but isn’t a substitute for being in close proximity for full days.

The drop in abuse reports is not specific to Long Island. It has been seen in places around the country, the patterns brought about by a locked-down world. We also know the pandemic is driving some adults to the breaking point, their own lives full of stress and insecurity and the dissolution of their own social networks. Often, for people prone to abuse already, that can turn into violence for partners and children at home.

Long Island knows well the lurking danger, given the despicable case of Thomas Valva, the 8-year-old who died in Center Moriches a year ago of hypothermia after being forced to sleep in an unheated garage by his father and father’s fiance, according to authorities.

But Valva’s case slipped through the cracks, as many do, even in normal times, despite teachers and others trying to intervene to get him help. In the wake of Valva’s death, abuse and neglect reports filed with county Child Protective Services actually went up briefly, perhaps due to more people paying attention.

The pandemic turned the tables.

We hope for the best, but there is little doubt that the Valva tragedy shows what could happen behind closed doors. Some changes have come about since Thomas’ death, including Suffolk County retraining child protective caseworkers and reducing caseloads. More could be coming, with Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini’s special grand jury, and if that body’s effort is focused and informed, it will recommend needed reforms that can prevent another death of a child. The county legislature, which has created a task force on the Valva case, will need to make those recommendations become a reality.

Given the chaotic and unprecedented situation of the pandemic, the public, family members and friends must be especially vigilant, alerting authorities or hotlines when necessary. We can’t afford to wait until after the pandemic to see what we missed.

— The editorial board