Drop in child abuse reports during COVID-19 worry Chatham's advocates, law enforcement

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/28/20

There have been fewer child abuse reports in Chatham County during COVID-19, but county officials concerned about family isolation say it’s likely not an accurate picture of what’s really happening. Jennie Kristiansen, director of the Chatham County Dept. of Social Services, said DSS saw a 28 percent decrease in reports over the last two months. But that number is probably misleading, she said.

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Drop in child abuse reports during COVID-19 worry Chatham's advocates, law enforcement

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Posted

There have been fewer child abuse reports in Chatham County during COVID-19, but county officials concerned about family isolation say it’s likely not an accurate picture of what’s really happening.

Jennie Kristiansen, director of the Chatham County Dept. of Social Services, said DSS saw a 28 percent decrease in reports over the last two months. But that number is probably misleading, she said.

“While fewer child abuse and neglect reports might seem like a good thing, we are concerned about child abuse not getting reported to us because families are more isolated,” Kristiansen said. “The life pressures that all families are facing, and especially families who are struggling with lost jobs on top of mental health stressors, substance use or domestic violence can make it more difficult to keep kids safe.”

North Carolina’s stay-at-home order and restrictions have led to many businesses closing and hundreds of thousands of people filing for unemployment. Additionally, the closure of schools has left children at home for much longer than normal.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, released a primer document recently outlining concerns related to intimate partner violence and child abuse during COVID-19. The document states that children are “specifically vulnerable to abuse during COVID-19.”

“Research shows that increased stress levels among parents is often a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children,” SAMHSA says. “Stressed parents may be more likely to respond to their children’s anxious behaviors or demands in aggressive or abusive ways.”

Rik Stevens, a spokesman with the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, said the department has seen “fewer child abuse and neglect reports” since the stay-at-home order went into place. But he has the same concerns as DSS.

“Many children are abused and/or neglected at home and are unlikely to self-report those conditions,” Stevens said. “Many of our abuse and neglect reports come from school employees and other caretakers outside the home and, as schools and many daycares have been closed, children have not had the opportunity to interact with those outside the home who might realize they are in crisis.”

Kristiansen said that DSS has been able to step up use of virtual visits with foster families and biological families of children in foster care in recent weeks.

“Often when children are in foster care they are seeing parents and siblings once a week,” she said. “However, with virtual visits, we have been able to get families together more frequently. While we are actively planning for a return to face-to-face visits with parents and children, we hope that the virtual option for meetings in particular will still be helpful to parents even after this crisis is over.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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