Abbie Newman worries about Pennsylvania’s children. As chief executive of Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center, a child-abuse support agency in Norristown, it’s practically in her job description.

But as the coronavirus shutdowns near their third month, Newman finds herself worrying even more — about what she and her colleagues aren’t being told.

“The kids are trapped at home now,” she said. “Many people are out of work, and even if employed, they’re at home and supposed to be teaching kids in addition to doing their own work. The stress is tremendous.”

ChildLine, an abuse hotline operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, logged 10,674 reports in April — a 50% decrease from the same month last year. Advocates and officials across the region noted even bigger drops last month, which happened to be National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Montgomery County saw a 62% decline in year-over-year abuse reports, Chester County recorded 64% fewer, and in Philadelphia, weekly averages hovered between 48% and 63% lower than what they were last spring.

Most agree on the reason for the sharp decline: Schools were closed.

“In normal times, you have thousands of eyes on kids every day, and that’s their teachers, bus drivers," and other school personnel, said Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele. "And now, no one has eyes on them.”

Officials and advocates also agree that fewer reports almost certainly doesn’t mean fewer children being abused. Typically, about 11% of calls to ChildLine are substantiated cases of abuse, according to state data. They become the first, critical steps that lead to abused children being rescued and placed in protective custody, or, in extreme cases, criminal charges against a parent or caregiver.

This isn’t an issue exclusive to the region or state. Economic and social disruption have historically led to increased rates of child abuse: One study from pediatricians in North Carolina found that head trauma in children spiked during the 2008 recession.

But the pandemic has added unique challenges — with tens of millions of Americans literally ordered to shelter at home with their closest family members and avoid interaction with others. Disruptions caused by COVID-19 have also led to issues with reporting domestic violence, and have caused agencies, locally and nationally, to remind victims that they can still seek aid.

As the coronavirus raced across the country in March, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a tip sheet for parents to relieve and redirect the stress of increased time at home, and guiding them in how to discipline children in healthy ways.

Steele and his counterparts throughout the region have also shifted their messaging in recent weeks, calling on members of the community to fill that gap and look for signs of abuse for children living near them. Though calls are down, prosecutors say they are still working at full capacity, and investigating abuse reports.

“The problem is that there’s no one common response to abuse,” said Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan. “There are some facts to consider, but not one or all are demonstrative of abuse.”

Ryan, a former child-abuse prosecutor and investigator, said there are telltale signs of abuse, especially a child’s shifts in behavior and personality. But it can be difficult for outside observers to pick up on more flagrant red flags, such as bed-wetting or other regressions.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele says that, normally, children have “thousands of eyes" on them, including teachers and other school staff members. With schools shuttered, the responsibility to act as a watchdog against abuse falls on community members.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele says that, normally, children have “thousands of eyes" on them, including teachers and other school staff members. With schools shuttered, the responsibility to act as a watchdog against abuse falls on community members.

“Before, we had a whole host of things we can look at, like a child not wanting to go off with someone abusing them. Now we can’t see that,” Ryan said. “If there’s abuse at home, the stats show it’s more likely to be in the home.”

Ryan said that even though teachers may still be communicating with students over Zoom or other video-chat applications, the signs of abuse may be harder to discern.

Which is why, in part, advocates like Newman are encouraging community members to act on their instincts.

“You know the kids in your neighborhood, you know the kids who are friends with your kids,” she said. “If you see them in the yard, are they acting differently? Do they look disheveled or unclean or bruised? These are things that adults can feel.”

Some of that has occurred, according to Amanda Dorris, the director of policy, program, and operations for DHS’s Office of Children, Youth, and Families. In March and April, 30% of the people calling ChildLine were “permissive reporters," neighbors or other community members of the kids in question, she said.

By contrast, permissive reporters made up just 8% of the calls to the state hotline in 2019.

Traditionally, those numbers are low, experts say, because of the perceived stigma of making those reports. Neighbors fear they’re intruding on another family’s life, or are misinterpreting certain signals.

This is especially true for families that are struggling financially, a situation likely to be more common as unemployment claims rise. But Jon Rubin, the deputy secretary for the OCYF, said there is no liability in making good-faith calls to ChildLine if there is “actual concern.”

And, in most cases, calls result in needed services being extended to families, rather than punitive measures like children being relocated or criminal charges being filed.

“We are really there as social workers, as helpers," Rubin said.

Though the number of calls is down, the process for responding to them has remained the same, with some adjustments for social distancing.

The staff at Mission Kids, the Norristown nonprofit, are using video chat to conduct interviews and check-ins with families that had active cases before the pandemic. New forensic interviews are still being conducted on site, albeit differently: The child and the interviewer are seated in different rooms, connected through video.

In Philadelphia, the Department of Human Services investigations are still completed in person, and DHS employees often have to arrive at homes unannounced, because they cannot warn parents under investigation about a visit, according to Commissioner Kimberly Ali.

(DHS workers ask before entering a home if anyone inside has symptoms of COVID-19, Ali said, and in some cases have had to ask parents and children to step outside and wear masks for the investigation.)

For families that have active cases with DHS, visits are now virtual. DHS has, when needed, supplied families with tablets to use for those visits, Ali said.

Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Ali, front left, said virtual forensic interviews conducted through video chat are still useful for social workers. They can show, among other things, the condition of the home the child is living in.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Ali, front left, said virtual forensic interviews conducted through video chat are still useful for social workers. They can show, among other things, the condition of the home the child is living in.

DHS social workers “ask the parent to show them around the house, open up the refrigerator, for example, so that they can peek into the refrigerator, make sure that utilities are on,” Ali said.

Armed with that information, social workers can begin providing services to the family and child, a spectrum ranging from food assistance to placing the child in a home with a relative.

But as Newman, the CEO of Mission Kids, said, none of that can happen without the first step: a concerned party making the call.

“We’re not asking people to investigate their neighbors or spy on them, but to watch out for each other,” she said. “If you think there is something going on that is unhealthy to that child, then sometimes if you don’t report it, the services can’t be gotten to them.”