Michigan child abuse reports are on the decline — but it doesn't mean the abuse has stopped

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click to enlarge Michigan child abuse reports are on the decline — but it doesn't mean the abuse has stopped

Since March, reports of child abuse have drastically dropped in Michigan. Good news, right? Child advocates and wellness organizations say "not quite."

Experts believe the decline might be a major red flag and an indicator that the abuse has not stopped but is going undetected due to the state's pandemic stay-at-home restrictions — which, for children, means infrequent in-person learning opportunities, Bridge Michigan reports.

“This is very troubling to me,” Blythe Tyler, president and CEO of nonprofit child welfare agency CARE House of Oakland County told Bridge. “People say to me, ‘How do you do the work you do?’ But it’s more than the kids that come here. It’s the kids that never get here that I’m concerned about.”

The Child Welfare League of America reports that professionals, including teachers, are responsible for reporting 67.3% of child abuse and neglect claims. With most of Michigan's children learning from home where they are isolated from outside influence, experts suggest children are at an increased risk. Close to 80% of abuse is at the hands of a parent or guardian.

In addition to not attending in-person classes and a suggested decrease in doctor visits, children may be more vulnerable due to the fact that many families are facing pandemic-related stressors, like unemployment, financial strains, food and housing insecurity, and a reported increase in alcohol consumption, all of which can play a role in households where abuse and neglect are prevalent.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported child abuse cases in April and May were down 45% from April and May 2019. Calls to the Michigan child abuse hotline also plunged by 50% following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's initial stay-at-home order in March, which saw the closure of k-12 schooling. When school resumed in the fall, child abuse reports began to climb again but were still significantly fewer — by thousands — than last year.

“That absolutely did concern us,” JooYeun Chang, executive director of the MDHHS Children’s Services Agency, told Bridge of the declining reports and calls.

Welfare organizations and education professionals are concerned as Michigan endures another three-week shutdown, which restricts in-person learning for high schoolers and college students, leaving elementary and middle schoolers at the mercy of their school district, that may, once again, see an alarming drop in abuse cases.

“Whether schools should be open to face-to-face learning is not as simple as it sounds,” Dave Campbell, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency, told Bridge. “Schools do far more to support students than just teach academics. We provide social support, emotional support. And we provide oversight over child well-being. That includes suspected cases of child abuse.”

Michigan organizations, like the MDHHS, had to get proactive as abuse reports dropped, knowing very well that the drop was a warning sign.

In the spring, to ensure families and children had the support they needed, including financial assistance, counseling, and housing support, MDHHS trained hundreds of Child Protective Services employees and turned its attention to 14,000 families who have been previously deemed vulnerable or at-risk. Detroit received its own pilot program to support 300 at-risk families that offers them access to mentors and community resources.

“Hopefully we have been able to meet the needs of some of the families who are right on the edge,” Chang said.

If you suspect abuse or neglect, you can call 855-444-3911 24/7 to report it.

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