The number of calls being made to Arkansas's hotline for child abuse is down, but some are concerned that may not be an accurate indicator. With schools closed for the remainder of the school year, experts say one of the primary safety nets for helping abused children has been removed.
According to Elizabeth Pulley, the Executive Director of the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, most reports of abuse come from educators trained to spot the signs.
“Teachers are really one of [a child's] protectors and the people that they trust," Pulley said. "And so not having that face-to-face interaction with teachers in a classroom at a school, that has declined the calls for our hotline and the services we provide. We do believe there will be a surge when this epidemic is over."
The CAC has 17 centers across the state. The hotline fields an average of 60,000 reported calls a year. Even though the number of calls are currently down, Pulley said the staff is undergoing additional training and preparing for an increase once social distancing mandates are lifted. The organization is also increasing its capacity to respond to victims through on-line portals.
Arkansas Children's Hospital's Dr. Karen Farst said there's historical evidence for an expected rise in cases and calls. She leads a team of pediatricians at ACH that focuses on child abuse.
Farst said, "The one event within our lifetimes that has been studied really well was the effect of the great recession in 2009-2010. And in the fallout from that period of time that was just a tremendous amount of financial stress on people, we definitely saw a rise or a trend up in the risk for kids to be maltreated in their homes."
Farst also pointed to recent reports of increased domestic abuse from countries that have been dealing with COVID-19 longer than the U.S. She said there's a direct link between domestic violence and child abuse.
According to the latest reports, over 20 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the middle of March. For adults, jobs can offer not just financial security but the comfort of a routine. Farst says schools often provide a similar comfort for children.
"Kids have been taken out of their routines and so that causes stress in them. And if kids are stressed and act out, then that can unfortunately perpetuate the cycle, so then it makes the parents stressed out as well. So figuring out some strategies of how to kind of structure your time at home and do things to minimize the stress in your kids can obviously help with the situation at home as well."
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, recognizing that stress, as well as loneliness, boredom, and panic, are all normal reactions to the COVID-19 outbreak is an important step. The organization suggests finding new routines and setting reasonable expectations for what can be accomplished given these circumstances. It also recommends a variety of positive discipline techniques, such as time-outs when tempers flare. Farst says that strategy can work for adults too.
"If you feel yourself being angry, being out of control, recognize that and step away from the situation. I know it's hard to reach out for help right now, but just because we're doing...social distancing, it doesn't mean that we have to be totally isolated. So reach out to somebody, even if that's just a phone call."
The American Academy of Pediatrics also lists phone or video calls with friends and family as one of their recommended strategies for dealing with stress caused by the pandemic. And, even during this time of decreased in-person contact, Arkansans who suspect a child is being abused can call the state hotline at 1-800-482-5964 or 1-844-728-3224.