In Sarasota County, reports of child abuse to the Department of Children and Families have reached a two-year high — and the cases have been more severe.
Staying home from school is an added risk factor to child abuse, said Danielle Hughes, child protection team coordinator at the Child Protection Center. Having limited community visibility is a detriment.
Sarasota and Charlotte County schools reopened on Aug. 31, but thousands of children are still not back in the classrooms.
In Sarasota County, about 20% of its 43,150 students are learning from home. In Charlotte County, about 12% of its 15,591 students are currently enrolled in virtual or e-learning programs, according to the district.
“We anticipated that, unfortunately, a lot of folks in our (DCF) population would probably opt to keep the kids out of school for a multitude of reasons that relate to poverty or circumstances that might be going on in the house that are inappropriate,” said Nathan Scott, Child Welfare Policy Coordinator of the Family Safety Alliance.
In staying home from school, students are spending more time with parents, who make up about 80% of perpetrators of child abuse, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
After schools shut down in March, reports of child abuse plummeted. In April, the number of child abuse reports to DCF in Charlotte County was at a nine-year low. But a lack of reports doesn’t equate to a lack of abuse — much of it went unseen by authorities until schools reopened.
The vast majority of reports come from professionals who have contact with children as part of their jobs — especially teachers, who produced 21% of the 4.3 million referrals made in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The number of reports has started to rise again as schools opened, and local professionals say the cases that came in have been more severe.
One type of child maltreatment on the rise is inadequate supervision of children, according to state data obtained by The Daily Sun.
It was the most common type of maltreatment reported in Charlotte and Sarasota counties in the last week of November, followed by physical injury and substance misuse.
“There’s more opportunity for kids if they are not in school, or they have to stay home instead of going to some sort of after-school program, to be in a position where they’re not able to be supervised adequately,” Scott said. “By virtue of COVID closing things down, or by virtue of them being homeschooled, the parent may have to work or go get groceries or something, giving them the benefit of the doubt that there’s not a substance use issue going on ... It’s possible that there’s more opportunity for them to be inadequately supervised, just based on the current situation.”
There were 452 cases reported to DCF in October in Sarasota County, the highest number of reports since September 2018 — and almost 13,000 students are still not in brick-and-mortar schools.
In Charlotte County, 224 reports were made to DCF, up from April’s nine-year low of 108 reports.
DeSoto County saw 64 reports made in October, up from March and May’s 42 reports.
Law enforcement has been the No. 1 reporter of child abuse throughout the pandemic, which is very unusual, Scott said.
This change is a result of the lack of teachers calling in reports of child maltreatment, according to Hughes. Officers often report child abuse to DCF when they respond to a possible crime involving a parent.
The rise of law enforcement’s reports to DCF does not mean that all of these children are virtual learners, but it is a clear shift from the usual professional reporters that children attending brick-and-mortar schools interact with on a daily basis.
Throughout the pandemic, the Child Protection Center has seen more cases involving polyvictimization, Hughes said, meaning there are multiple layers to the abuse — for example, physical abuse along with sexual abuse and substance abuse.
“Families are in crisis — they’re losing their jobs, can’t provide for their families. When you’re in those situations, people start to act out; people don’t know how to cope,” Hughes said. “People don’t know how to handle this; they’ve never handled it before. Parents are starting to drink more, misusing substances and are getting frustrated or angry in how they act out.”
The number of people involuntarily admitted for substance abuse treatment roughly tripled in Charlotte County from the start of the coronavirus pandemic to August, and have remained elevated consistently since then, according to Victoria Scanlon, CEO of Charlotte Behavioral Health Care.
“What is the Florida child welfare system going to look like in a year?” Hughes said. “I don’t know what the long-term impact is going to be because of this pandemic and that frightens me.”
Florida law requires any person who knows or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is being abused or neglected by a parent or caregiver to report it to the Florida Abuse Hotline.
Anybody who suspects child abuse or neglect should call 1-800-962-2873 or report online by visiting: reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us.