Last April, when much of the state was shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, calls to Arkansas' child abuse hotline dropped significantly. Teachers — the group most likely to spot and report suspected maltreatment — had shifted to virtual classrooms and were having less interaction with students.
Dan Mack, administrator of the Arkansas State Police's Crimes Against Children hotline, said there were nearly 3,000 fewer calls than normal last April, but that has changed in recent months.
"Schools have opened up, so more virtual students are now attending in person, especially after this last Christmas break. So, we're seeing kind of a steady increase," Mack said. The hotline received nearly 10,000 fewer calls in 2020 compared to the year before, he said, despite receiving more calls than usual in January and February of last year.
Calls are routed through the hotline before being assigned to either Arkansas's Department of Human Services (DHS) or the state police, depending on the severity and urgency of the situation. As experts feared, a drop in calls didn't mean abuse declined, just the reporting.
Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas has 17 sites in the state that offer a range of support, like medical exams or therapy, for abused children and their caregivers. Elizabeth Pulley, the organization's executive director, said the number of in-person visits increased even as calls decreased. Combined, the state's centers served about 10,000 kids in 2020.
Children’s Advocacy Centers also provide training to help people, like teachers, identify potentially abusive situations. When schools went virtual, Pulley said the centers looked for additional resources and partners. Delivery services became a potential ally.
Pulley said, "If it was FedEx or UPS or food delivery, those were still going to people's houses. Are they aware? What are the signs? Did they see something odd? And just really looking at different ways to get our foot in the door to talk about child abuse, how to use the hotline."
Those new partnerships may have contributed to a change in the types of people reporting abuse.
"We did see an increase in calls made by delivery personnel or personnel who were making service calls," Mack said. "Maybe they were a cable provider, or maybe they were a plumber, or a maintenance person in an apartment complex."
Similar to the experience of the advocacy centers, Dr. Karen Farst, a pediatrician who specializes in child abuse cases at Arkansas Children's Hospital, said the number of children being seen for abuse at the hospital didn't decrease last year. She said there were even small increases in some types of maltreatment cases.
"The other thing that we've seen in the short run, that we need to keep following forward, [is] the severity of cases over the calendar year of 2020 was higher than the severity of cases for calendar year 2019," said Farst. Children were admitted with more serious or more numerous wounds.
As more of the state gets vaccinated and pandemic restrictions are relaxed, reports of maltreatment are expected to continue rising. Farst says support organizations like DHS will be focused on improving the circumstances for families to prevent repeated abuse.
"I think a lot of people think that when DHS takes custody of a child, that that's just kind of it, and the family has lost the child. But there's actually a lot of work that goes into a case if a child comes into custody to try to improve the family situation, strengthen things, and try to get that family back together because we know that kids will do better in the long run if they can safely be with their family," said Farst.
She also offered three suggestions for those wanting to help. First, report suspected abuse. It can be done anonymously. Second, support stressed families by volunteering at food banks, or mentoring at organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, or contributing to domestic violence shelters.
"Lastly," Farst said, "it's kind of a big step, but it can make the biggest difference is to be a foster or adoptive parent." She listed Project Zero and Walk for the Waiting as two state organizations to consider supporting.
Since 1983, April has been National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Arkansans who suspect a child is being abused can call the state hotline at 1-800-482-5964 or 1-844-728-3224.