Evidence Photo1.jpg (copy)

Zip ties and a bed post are seen in an evidence photo provided by authorities in a 2019 case. Authorities are concerned a lack of reports of child abuse is indicative that it is taking place more often with victims unable to talk to teachers and other adults about it because of COVID-19.

PHOTO PROVIDED

At an area home, deputies found a child covered in bug bites wearing a diaper overflowing with urine.

The filthy home reeked of feces and cigarette butts. The girl’s booster seat was next to a table covered in white powder from drugs, according to Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies stumbled upon the situation because they were searching for the girl’s mother, who had a warrant for her arrest. Both parents were arrested for child neglect and other charges.

If deputies hadn’t been searching for her mother, the child might still be in a house where the adults were allegedly using meth.

Experts say neglect or abuse cases are going undiscovered right now.

With schools, childcare facilities and camps closed due to COVID-19, reports of child abuse in area counties have plummeted.

In April, the number of reports of child abuse to the Department of Children and Families in Charlotte County was at the lowest it’s been in about a decade.

In Sarasota County, 322 reports were made in April of this year, compared to 443 made April of last year.

But that doesn’t mean fewer children are being abused.

When Florida schools shut down in mid-March, kids stopped seeing their teachers — who are trained to look for and report signs of child abuse.

“Quite a few reports come from professionals at schools mostly because they’re trained in what to look for, and kids spend a lot of time at school,” said Nathan Scott, child welfare policy coordinator with the Family Safety Alliance. “During COVID-19, they haven’t been at school, so that’s been a contributing factor (in the decline in reports).”

People who are required by law to report child abuse include professionals such as educators, health professionals and social workers — anyone who has contact with the child as part of his or her job.

Without schools, camps and regular doctor’s appointments, children are with their parents now more than ever. And about 80% of perpetrators are parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The decline in child abuse reports spurred on by the onset of the coronavirus lockdown is a nationwide trend as well.

“What we’re seeing right now, is that despite the fact that reports are lower, we’re still removing kids (from their homes) in our circuit, and the cases we’re seeing are pretty significant,” Scott said. “We’re not sure if it’s stress or what the reasoning is, but the cases we’re seeing are more significant.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced May 22 that youth activities, including organized sports, were allowed to resume after two months of lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Florida saw a slight increase in reports to DCF in May, up to 19,110 reports, though not close to last May’s total of 28,292.

Because schools and other facilities where children come into contact with mandatory reporters are largely closed, the responsibility falls into the hands of anybody who sees a child, whether at a grocery store, a park or in the neighborhood, Scott said.

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.

“During times of uncertainty and stress like this, we encourage all Floridians to be vigilant and aware of the signs of child abuse,” said Natalie Harrell, a DCF spokesperson, in a prepared statement. “Historically, when children are on breaks from school, like summer vacation, the hotline tends to receive fewer child intakes, as their teachers — who are mandatory reporters — no longer see them on a daily basis.”

Signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect include bruising, bites, burns, broken bones or black eyes. It can also include consistently dirty or severe body odor, apparent lack of supervision considering the age of the child, difficulty walking or sitting, or demonstrating unusual sexual knowledge or behavior, according to the Florida Department of Health.

“If folks reasonably suspect something is off, it’s better to call in a report than to not,” Scott said. “There’s no penalty for reporting. People should make any calls if they feel in their gut something is off.”

Anybody who suspects child abuse or neglect should call 1-800-962-2873 or report online by visiting: reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us.

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