Although declining reports of child abuse and neglect during the last few months may seem like good news, it raises a red flag to public health experts at West Virginia University and officials at the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice, as social isolation can leave a victim with no outlet for escape.
“While physical distancing has been and continues to be necessary in light of the pandemic, children may not have contact with those in more traditional roles, such as teachers, daycare workers and coaches, who all play an important part in detecting and reporting signs of maltreatment,” said Audra Hamrick, director of undergraduate studies and public health practice and service learning and assistant professor in the School of Public Health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child abuse and neglect – referred to as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs – include exposure to violence, abuse or neglect; witnessing violence at home or in the community; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide.
Hamrick said ACEs are far more common than most people believe, but are often overlooked. Studies show children who experience multiple ACEs are at greater risk for various illnesses, substance abuse and difficulty maintaining employment and healthy relationships in adulthood.
Such outcomes not only present challenges at the individual level, but on a broader scale, spanning from community and population health to education and the economy.
“The consequences of child maltreatment are long-term and affect all aspects of public health, including physical and mental health, education and social development,” Hamrick said. “Beyond that are the economic impacts, including costs of long-term hospitalization, behavioral health treatment, child and social welfare systems, criminal justice systems and lost work productivity.”
Hamrick, a former professional school counselor who focused on high-risk populations and trauma-informed practices, serves on the WV Center for Children’s Justice Handle with Care Task Force. She said now more than ever, it is crucial for everyone to take responsibility, and if they “see something, say something.”
“Responsive, supportive adults helping to create safe, stable, relationships and environments can prevent ACEs and help children thrive,” she added.
Placing ‘Handle with Care’ in the hands of the public
Handle with Care, also known as the West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative, is a coordinated effort between law enforcement, school systems and mental health providers that aims to prevent children’s exposure – and mitigate negative effects as a result of exposure – to trauma and violence and increase awareness of the issue.
“Law enforcement officers have procedures to follow if they encounter a child during a call, including a confidential communication with a teacher that explains the child has been on the scene of a police incident in case the child exhibits academic, emotional or behavioral problems,” Andrea Darr, director of the WVCCJ who led the effort to develop HWC 10 years ago, said.
According to Darr, when students started learning from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports to the centralized intake system at CPS and the HWC referrals decreased dramatically.
“Everyone is isolated due to social distancing, and we know the stressors on families are going through the roof, yet the referrals are doing down,” Darr said.
In response, the HWC Task Force developed a set of resources to help support children who are more vulnerable due to the isolation of the pandemic. The campaign encourages everyone to report a situation in which they believe a child is unsafe.
Among the resources is a flyer with detailed guidance on how to detect and report instances of child abuse, which includes the toll free WV Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline (1-800-352-6513).
The Task Force is making a special effort to target individuals who work in places like grocery and convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants, including those that provide food delivery services. One key takeaway: don’t delay reporting if you have reasonable cause to suspect or know of maltreatment.
“The earlier intervention can occur, the greater the outlook for children and society,” Hamrick said.
Recognize, respond and report
Cortney Simmons, educational outreach specialist in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, provides Children on Campus training to members of the University community and serves as a confidential resource to students, faculty or staff who have been involved in Title IX related incidents.
“Youth are one of our most vulnerable populations we care for and it’s our responsibility to recognize, respond and report any child abuse or neglect we may see,” Simmons said.
This responsibility is underscored by WVU’s Rule on Child Protection, which includes information about Mandatory Reporters and their obligation, by state law, to report child abuse or neglect to multiple entities, including the state health department, the WVU Police Department and the Division of DEI.
DEI provides multiple avenues for reporting known or suspected instances of child abuse and several resources, including:
- • “Report Abuse” form, readily accessible at the top of each page of the DEI website
- • 24-hour hotline: 304-906-9930
- • Online/virtual safety resources
- • Additional resources and reporting options
Simmons said their office is continuing to conduct background checks and train faculty, staff, students and volunteers amid the shift to online programming.
“Our goal is to continue raising awareness about these issues and ensuring that folks know how to respond,” Simmons said. “We all have an obligation to report – and it can be anonymous if that is what is best for someone.”
Simmons, acknowledging that collaboration is another key to addressing the challenge, added, “DEI will continue to collaborate with partners like Audra Hamrick and the West Virginia Center for Children's Justice to combat this issue in an ongoing effort to create safe environments for our children to grow.”
CONTACT: Nikky Luna
WVU School of Public Health
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