With school canceled through the rest of the semester, authorities are working to ensure children experiencing abuse and neglect are still getting the help they need.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Sarah Welliver, the Utah Division of Child and Family Services Public Information Officer, said there has been a shift in the organization’s referral sources.

From January to April 2019, schools made up about 20.61% of Division of Child and Family Services referrals, according to data from the organization. The second-highest source of referral during that time was law enforcement, which made up about 19.91% of referrals.

While schools and law enforcement still remain in the top two sources of Division of Child and Family Services referrals, the numbers have noticeably fluctuated.

“Of course, with schools being closed down and a lot of programs being shut down, we have children who are staying at home, and in some unfortunate cases, with their abusers,” Welliver said.

While law enforcement referrals have increased to 20.67% from January to April 2020, referrals from schools are experiencing a dropoff, reaching lows of 17.31% this year.

Generally, the number of reports the Division of Child and Family Services is receiving are decreasing, especially so during the month of April, but Welliver said this in no way means cases of child abuse and neglect are dwindling.

“It’s not because we think abuse isn’t happening, it’s because people aren’t seeing it,” she said.

In fact, Welliver said, while the number of referrals have decreased, the reports of violence are becoming more severe, specifically involving domestic violence cases.

“A lot of the calls we are receiving are more concerning because one of the only sources right now is law enforcement,” Welliver said. “They’re being called and then involving us because of any concerns as to what they might have seen if there are children involved.”

School teachers and counselors, who also are trained to see the symptoms of abuse and neglect, are able to act as liaisons for children experiencing abuse and neglect, referring them to organizations like the Division of Child and Family Services.

When the Division of Child and Family Services receives a referral, an investigation begins, and the findings dictate what the organization will do to ensure the health and safety of the children.

“Our goal is always to keep children safely with their families,” Welliver said.

Welliver said the Division of Child and Family Services experiences similar dips in the number of referrals during gaps in school being in session, such as during the summer, winter and spring breaks.

Child abuse cases can be exacerbated by job loss, financial instability and mental health concerns, all of which have been heightened during the coronavirus pandemic.

A national study from the World Health Organization indicated that countries around the world experienced significantly higher incidences of domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic than the same months in previous years. In one case, domestic violence rates tripled when compared to previous years.

Rates were affected not just by stressors, such as disruption of social networks and decreased access to services, but also because women and children see their families less, are exposed to abuse more often as they are confined, and could possibly feel they are unable to leave after losing a job or having limited access to basic needs.

Another study published by the American Psychological Association yielded similar conclusions when conducting research on domestic violence during recessions and natural disasters, specifically mentioning Hurricane Harvey.

With most of the regions in the state making the move from the orange phase to the yellow phase, Welliver said she is expecting the Division of Child and Family Services to receive a jump in numbers of referrals.

Welliver said the most significant factor behind people not reporting suspected abuse or neglect is the fear of being wrong.

“It’s our job to decide if something is wrong where we need to be involved,” she said. “It’s not their job. All we are asking is that people do what they can to take care of children and families in their communities so that we can try to prevent abuse.”

Every person in the state of Utah, by law, is a mandatory reporter of child abuse.

Those who suspect child abuse or neglect are urged to call the Utah Division of Child and Family Services on the 24-hour hotline at 1-855-323-3237.

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