In the first week after Gov. Chris Sununu issued an emergency order to close schools and move to remote learning reports of child abuse decreased by almost 50%, according to data from the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
Educators, including teachers, staff and social workers, are the number one source of reports for child abuse and neglect across the country. With schools continuing to operate on remote learning models, worries remain that cases of child abuse may be going undetected.
“At the beginning, we all thought they would be back to school by May,” said Marty Sink, president of child advocacy organization CASA New Hampshire. “And now, knowing some of the largest districts – Nashua, Manchester and Concord – are still doing virtual learning, there is continued concern that many children are at home and not being seen by teachers and daycare providers.”
Six months after the initial drop in reports, New Hampshire’s numbers have been back on the rise, and doubled from one week to the next as schools began to reopen, but there is one significant change. Most reports in August 2020 came from law enforcement, not educators. The number of reports from school/childcare workers was down 49% from August 2019.
“We knew very well that reports of incidents of child abuse and neglect were not down because kids were not being hurt,” said Joy Barrett, executive director of the Granite State Children’s Alliance. “We knew this was because kids were not in safe places where there were no people who could identify and report abuse.”
Barrett said educators play a vital role in recognizing the warning signs that may indicate abuse.
“Kids spend a significant amount of time in school,” Barrett said. “Educators are trained in what to look for. Teachers are often trusted adults for kids. A child may want to tell an adult whats happening to them.”
In response to the issue, the Granite State Children’s Alliance is altering its programming for the COVID-19 era. The organization’s project managers have gathered materials and resources for educators on recognizing potential signs of abuse or neglect in children during Zoom classes. These resources include recommendations like scanning the student’s physical appearance for bruising or injury, checking the background for signs of substance abuse or family dysfunction and perceiving changes in the student’s mood or communication.
“We took time to develop resources that show teachers that everyday conversations, checking in on a child just like they would in person, would help or develop a suspicion that something is going on over a computer,” said Jana El Sayed, outreach project manager at Granite State Children’s Alliance.
The organization has also expanded its regular “Know and Tell” training program that’s typically aimed at educators, to appeal to the general public. Under New Hampshire law, all adults over 18 are considered mandated reporters, but not everyone knows the signs.
“We knew our best eyes on kids were going to be other adults – neighbors, other family members, people who were coming in contact with kids other than educators,” Barrett said. “We expanded that program and did a lot of promotion.”
Some area schools that started out in a remote model are looking ahead to transitioning to a hybrid model mid-fall, with the hope of being in-person by the new year. Both the Concord School District and the Nashua School District, which started the year remotely, plan to phase to a hybrid model starting Oct. 5. Manchester School District will be transitioning from a remote to a hybrid model beginning the week of Oct. 12.
Sink says that as schools look ahead to reopening in person, CASA-NH is planning for a spike in demand for advocacy services in the near future.
“We are preparing for an increase in the number of cases we could potentially see,” Sink said. “We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst and hopefully we will be able to address the need if in fact there is an increase.”
Even in a hybrid model, students are typically only in school two days a week, limiting the in-person interactions they have with educators. Barrett recommends that schools doing online learning take advantage of the Granite State Children’s Alliance’s free online Know and Tell training, as well as the COVID-19 resources on recognizing warning signs via virtual learning.
“I often say protecting children is all our responsibility, it’s not the responsibility of one particular agency,” Barrett said.