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During the pandemic, reports of child abuse have decreased. Here’s why that’s concerning

Editor's note: If you or someone you know needs help related to child abuse, contact Childhelp at 800.4.A.CHILD (800.422.4453). Additional resources listed below.

Since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools nationwide, children are spending much more time at home. But reports of abuse and neglect have declined dramatically, prompting concerns among child welfare advocates that mistreatment isn’t being exposed. William Brangham reports on the fears of child welfare experts and talks to Dr. Robert Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center.

Here are some resources recommended by experts in this piece:

Child Abuse
Childhelp®
Phone: 800.4.A.CHILD (800.422.4453)
People They Help: Child abuse victims, parents, concerned individuals

Child Sexual Abuse
Darkness to Light
Phone: 866.FOR.LIGHT (866.367.5444)
People They Help: Children and adults needing local information or resources about sexual abuse

Family Violence
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Phone: 800.799.SAFE (800.799.7233)
TTY: 800.787.3224
Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers: 206.518.9361
People They Help: Children, parents, friends, offenders

Help for Parents
National Parent Helpline®
Phone: 855.4APARENT (855.427.2736) (available 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., PST, weekdays)
People They Help: Parents and caregivers needing emotional support and links to resources

Human Trafficking
National Human Trafficking Hotline
Phone: 888.373.7888
People They Help: Victims of human trafficking and those reporting potential trafficking situations

Mental Illness
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Phone: 800.950.NAMI (800.950.6264) (available 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., ET, weekdays)
People They Help: Individuals, families, professionals

Missing/Abducted Children
Child Find of America
Phone: 800.I.AM.LOST (800.426.5678)
People They Help: Parents reporting lost or abducted children, including parental abductions

Child Find of America—Mediation
Phone: 800.A.WAY.OUT (800.292.9688)
People They Help: Parents (abduction, prevention, child custody issues)

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Phone: 800.THE.LOST (800.843.5678)
TTY: 800.826.7653
People They Help: Families and professionals (social services, law enforcement)

Rape/Incest
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
Phone: 800.656.HOPE (800.656.4673)
People They Help: Rape and incest victims, media, policymakers, concerned individuals

Substance Abuse
National Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Information Center
Phone: 800.784.6776
People They Help: Families, professionals, media, policymakers, concerned individuals

Suicide Prevention
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Phone: 800.273.TALK (800.273.8255)
TTY: 800.799.4TTY (800.799.4889)
People They Help: Families, concerned individuals

Youth in Trouble/Runaways
National Runaway Switchboard
Phone: 800.RUNAWAY (800.786.2929)
People They Help: Runaway and homeless youth, families

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since the coronavirus closed schools nationwide, children are staying at home.

    And, coincidentally, during this two-month period, reports to authorities of child abuse and neglect have declined dramatically.

    As William Brangham tells us, advocates for child welfare are especially concerned about what this says about their safety.

    Before we continue, a warning: This segment is focused on a sensitive subject. And if there are younger viewers with you, you may want to take a moment to pause or opt out.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    In normal times, it is difficult to cover child welfare and allegations of child abuse. Now, with a pandemic, it is even more difficult.

    We wanted to begin by sharing some of the stories and concerns that we heard from many people who are working to try to prevent that abuse.

    Here's some of what we heard.

  • Kelly White:

    My name is Kelly White. I'm the co CEO at the Safe Alliance in Austin, Texas. We work across the issues of child abuse, sex trafficking, sexual assault, domestic violence.

    We are particularly concerned because, if children are at risk in a home, nobody is seeing them now.

  • Georgia Boothe:

    Hi. I'm Georgia Boothe. And I am in New York City with the Children's Aid Society.

    One of our biggest concerns during this pandemic is the safety and well-being of children. We heavily on schools and physicians and other adults that are coming in contact with children on a regular basis to report incidences of child abuse and neglect.

  • Jim Dudley:

    Hi. This is Jim Dudley. I am in Redwood City, California. And, currently, I'm a lecturer on faculty at San Francisco State University.

    When I was with the police department, I was the captain of our child abuse prevention and investigation group. In COVID-19 days, we don't get those reports. So, it's up to the officers to be aware, without those other sort of subtle hints, that a child may be being abused.

  • Leah Fraley:

    I'm Leah Fraley. I'm the executive director of Stop Child Abuse Now of Northern Virginia.

    Reports are going down, which makes sense, right? There's less reports because the front line of child protection really isn't in that child's life anymore. Reports are going down. That doesn't mean abuse is going down, right, just the reports.

    We are seeing minors making those reports, which is not typical.

  • Donald Plumley:

    Hi. I'm Dr. Don Plumley, I am in Orlando, Florida. And I'm the medical director at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital.

    What we have seen during the pandemic, unfortunately, is, we have seen a major increase of children presenting with major injuries. There's children coming with broken bones, head injuries, burns.

    And we have probably seen an increase of at least 50 percent to 100 percent of these cases in the last two months.

  • Xanthe Scharff:

    I'm Xanthe Scharff. I live in Washington, D.C. And I'm the CEO and co-founder of The Fuller Project.

    The Fuller Project is a global nonprofit newsroom that's dedicated to reporting on the issues that most impact women.

    During coronavirus, there has been a spike of 230 percent in the material online, which is child sexual abuse, which is being shared. And that's material that is on the publicly accessible Web.

  • Kelly White:

    We had a call from child protective services worker because of a young woman that had been in our teen parent program — that's a part of our children's shelter — and had left to go back to — with her child to go back to her family.

    And now her — someone from her family that had been sexually aggressive toward her was now sexually abusing her child. We got them into our family shelter in a second.

  • Xanthe Scharff:

    There has been a breakdown as far as the actors that are monitoring and taking down this child sexually abusive material online.

    We have found through our reporting that the instances of material being taken down has been reduced by 89 percent.

  • Donald Plumley:

    In our two-county area, Orange County and Seminole County, Florida, we will see eight or nine patients a month. In the last two months of March and April, we have seen 19 and 15 children that required hospitalization.

  • Leah Fraley:

    For a family who, prior to the pandemic, was in that situation and stressed out, overwhelmed, worried about, et cetera, all of the things that really do lend to difficult environments, that's now worse, significantly worse.

  • William Brangham:

    So, now to understand a bit more about these concerns, I'm joined by Dr. Robert Sege. He's a pediatrician at the Tufts Medical Center who works to combat these problems. He's also a senior fellow at Tufts Center for the Study of Social Policy.

    Dr. Sege, thank you very much for being here.

    We heard some, obviously, very alarming reports of injuries going up, of sexual abuse online going up. What, in the midst of this pandemic, concerns you the most?

  • Robert Sege:

    I think what I'm concerned about is, we really don't know what's going on, that our state and most states around the country have seen a dramatic decline in child abuse reports.

    We know that some of the risks factors are increased. Families are under more stress, more financial stress. Their children are at home, when they should be in school. And their parents are — could be employed in essential businesses, they could be unemployed, or they could be trying to work from home.

    All of those things tend to increase family stress. And one thing we know about child abuse is, most people who abuse their children are kind of at the end of their rope. There aren't that many people who are really bad and wake up in the morning and say, I want to abuse or neglect my child.

    It's mostly good parents who just lose it.

  • William Brangham:

    So what we would expect in a pandemic like this, with people being cooped up for this amount of time, this in some ways is — maybe inevitable is not the right word, but this is a not unexpected event.

  • Robert Sege:

    No.

    We saw in past natural disasters there's been an increase in serious child abuse. During the Great Recession, there was an increase in the most serious kind of child abuse, the abuse of head trauma for infants. So, we're very worried.

    But this has never happened before. We're really concerned about what we don't see. But it doesn't necessarily mean that it's terrible for every child.

    And we're concerned that, as we slowly begin to reemerge, when it's safe to do so, these children have a place to go, people to talk to, and ways to talk about their experience, particularly if they have been abused or neglected in some way.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm just so struck by this idea that, when there's a decline in reports of abuse, that that sets off alarm bells for people like yourself.

  • Robert Sege:

    Yes, the thing about child abuse is, most child abuse is not reported.

    And we know that in all times. And that's done because, if you ask adults, in many different ways, were you used as a child, the numbers are much higher than the number of reports.

    So — in all times. And, now, the people who report child abuse are their teachers, their early childhood educators, sometimes their neighbors. The children may confide in someone like a grandparent or a beloved aunt or uncle.

    And those things end up becoming reported through the child welfare system. And, of course, physicians, when we see children, if they have bruises that you can't explain or injuries, or they're — or they appear to be neglected, we're also required by law to report.

    So all of those safety nets built around children just aren't there right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you have any advice for parents?

    I hear what you're saying, that this isn't a chronic condition for the most part. People aren't inherently abusive to their children. It's often a situational stress that sets it off.

    Let's say there are parents that are watching this who are feeling those feelings, are feeling stressed and anxious and nervous and frightened and angry. Is there any generalized advice you can offer for them?

  • Robert Sege:

    Yes, there are a couple of things that we know.

    The first one is, reach out for help. Even though you can't physically join someone, on telephone, video, any other way that you can get a chance to vent those feelings and know that it's not — you're not unusual.

    We're all feeling moments of frustration and despair under the circumstances. It is the way it is.

    Secondly, understand that your children's lives are disrupted also. So, if they're misbehaving or they're having problems, take a moment to ask them what's going on and what they miss.

    Children don't know very much yet. They haven't been around long. And, sometimes, parents can help with some of the things that they're — that they're concerned about.

    And I think the other piece that I just sort of want to make sure to say is, no one's very efficient or productive these days. Take some time, enjoy your children, build a fort, go for a walk, whatever it takes. Just have some fun, because this is really bad. It's really hard.

    But maybe, at the end of the day, we will be able to look back and say, it was a really difficult time, but, boy, did we laugh.

  • William Brangham:

    This is all very, very important advice to take to heart.

    Dr. Robert Sege at the Tufts Medical Center, thank you very, very much for your time.

  • Robert Sege:

    Thank you so much for inviting me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very important, as we heard.

    And as we just heard, there are a number of groups and hot lines you can call or find on the Web if you know someone in need of help. We will include them on our site tonight.

    You can start with the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. It can be reached by phone or text at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. Or you can go to Childhelp.org/childhelp-hotline.

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