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Reports of child abuse are down, but agencies believe abuse is on the rise due to COVID-19

Posted at 4:44 AM, Apr 03, 2020

A drop in the number of child abuse referrals, is usually a good thing, but with COVID-19 shutting down schools, businesses, and activities, county child welfare officials don't believe the numbers reflect the reality.

With stay at home orders in California, children are now isolated and not at schools and other everyday activities where there would be mandatory reporters of child abuse. While counties across the state are reporting lower numbers of referrals, many fear child abuse will actually increase as the pandemic is bringing more stress and anxiety to families.

"Usually when you see child abuse referrals dropping, a lot of people think that is a good thing, that means less stress, kids are doing better communities are doing better, but right now we know that's not true," said Laurie Haro, Santa Barbara County Child Welfare Services division chief.

In Santa Barbara County, child welfare services gets about 500-600 child abuse referrals a month, or about 180 a week.

But with mandatory reporters such as teachers, coaches, or other community members no longer seeing children on a day to day basis, the numbers have taken a steep hit.

"Since about March 15th, we've seen our referral totals drop almost in half, from what we're usually seeing," said Haro.

In the first week of March, Santa Barbara County Child Welfare Services received 181 referrals but in the fourth week they saw just 76.

San Luis Obispo County is seeing the same trend, as they're seeing about a 20% drop in calls from month to month.

While the numbers of new referrals are dropping, places like Child Abuse Listening Meditation, or C.A.L.M., are seeing children they work with struggling with the reality of coronavirus.

"The children are experiencing more stress, we're seeing more externalizing behavior, meaning the children are having more meltdowns, tantrums, expressing anxiety," said Yvonne Nelson, C.A.L.M. north county regional manager.

Even with fewer child abuse referrals most likely coming in over the next several weeks and potentially months, C.A.L.M. says they're expecting more children and families in need of support.

"We're anticipating that the stress of this pandemic for families and families who were already at risk, is going to increase the need for mental health support," said Nelson.

If referrals continue to decrease, Santa Barbara County says they're going to potentially look at partnering with other agencies to try and be more proactive in the community to help find cases they might not be aware of.