Over the past couple months, the Department of Human Services saw a significant drop in Child Protective Services investigations in Lane County, and its monthly case assignments for commercial sexual exploitation of children recently fell to zero. In some instances, local child abuse cases have reportedly been more serious in nature during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Lane County, Heather Murphy wasn’t surprised at the sudden decline in CPS investigations.
“People that work with children immediately expected this to happen,” Murphy says.
CPS investigations occur after screeners at the child abuse hotline determine a safety concern and assign an assessment, according to Oregon DHS Press Secretary Sunny Petit.
DHS Child Welfare in Lane County was assigned 95 assessments during the week ending March 15. That steadily dropped to 34 over the week ending April 12. Only 230 assessments came in through April, about half of what can normally be expected, she says.
The dropoff has concerned staff at DHS and several of its local partner organizations, who all say the decline is due to children having limited contact with mandatory reporters during the COVID-19 pandemic. These reporters — which include school employees, medical providers and psychologists — are workers who are legally required to “make reports if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect”, Oregon DHS’s website says.
The child advocacy center Kids First conducts child abuse assessments through forensic interviews, medical exams and advocacy for children when there are concerns of abuse. It normally provides those services for 10 to 12 children a week or more but, for the past six weeks, has been completing two to three assessments per week, Executive Director Sarah Stewart says. With limited amounts of personal protective equipment available, staff has to be selective about which children they serve immediately.
Kids First is prioritizing “urgent circumstances” in which the child may be harmed, the community will be at risk or a criminal case will be negatively affected if an interview is scheduled out for several weeks, she says.
“It’s really challenging, and it’s not something that makes me feel very good because I know that kids are in danger,” Stewart says. “I just think, how many of these cases actually aren’t being reported?”
Stewart says the child abuse cases Kids First has been seeing recently are more dangerous than usual. They have escalated to be more violent and involve firearms and other weapons, and the more urgent cases involve domestic violence.
Several other local organizations that support victims of child abuse have had to find creative ways to operate remotely or at a social distance. CASA of Lane County is a nonprofit that connects youth in the child welfare system with court-appointed volunteer advocates. Referrals to the organization have not declined, Murphy says, and it has been conducting its visitations, training and recruitment interviews virtually.
Caseworkers at Lane County DHS Child Welfare are continuing to visit homes for assessments of potential child abuse, but they generally sit across a table and, if health concerns are a factor, they can have another person with a cell phone go through the home to check for unclean or potentially unsafe conditions, Petit says. Visits between biological parents and children in foster care are still allowed on a case-by-case basis, she says, but DHS is working with foster families to set up virtual visitations for cases where meeting in person is not an option.
Staff at the Lane County Relief Nursery develop relationships with children and families and provide services to them. In addition to remote visitations, the Relief Nursery is currently offering various forms of support, including food boxes for families, baby formula, personal hygiene items, educational materials and teletherapy sessions for families with mental health issues, according to Executive Director Kelly Sutherland.
Sutherland says at-risk-families are suffering from issues like job loss and food insecurity, and most instances of children experiencing neglect are “not intentional.”
DHS has also seen a 48 percent decline in statewide child abuse hotline calls, Petit says. It has gone from taking more than 700 calls on any given weekday to about 350 on weekdays as of May 1. CPS investigations of abuse or neglect statewide have also fallen by about 40 percent, she says.
In dealing with “the most vulnerable population,” Murphy says CASA wants to ensure children are removed from dangerous situations and aren’t “falling through the cracks.”
DHS in Lane County had zero case assignments for commercial sexual exploitation of children in the last month as of April 22, where there are typically three to five per month, according to Petit.
Supervisory Special Agent Isaac DeLong of the FBI Portland Field Office says the agency is concerned that children who are out of school are spending more time online and, therefore, at an increased risk of coming into contact with child predators.
Open communication and trusted relationships between parents and children are key to law enforcement being notified that children are being exploited, DeLong says. He also recommends that parents review and approve apps or games before they are downloaded, ensure that privacy settings on them are as strict as possible and keep electronic devices in open areas of the home.
Signs of children suffering potential abuse include having increased nightmares, withdrawn behavior, anxiety, outbursts or “more sexual knowledge than is appropriate for their age,” DeLong says.
In a March 19 news release, DHS encouraged community members “to check in with at-risk families” — including young or isolated children, and children and adults with medical vulnerabilities or severe emotional or mental health needs — through phone, email or a safe distance.
Oregon DHS Child Welfare is still operating the 24/7 child abuse hotline for reports of potential child abuse and neglect at 1-855-503-SAFE (7233). Other resources are available at the DHS website.