The number of child abuse reports dropped steeply, even as conditions that typically lead to higher rates of in-home violence such as a weakened economy and increased isolation became more common. By April, abuse disclosures had dropped by 50 percent across the state according to multiple reports at the time, a decline that advocates say was roughly mirrored in Greenville County.
The drop was troubling, but not unexpected.
Reports fall every year when schools let out for summer and teachers, who are on the front lines of identifying signs of abuse and neglect, lose touch with their students. But it was unclear how long schools would be shuttered, and the uncertainty swirling around the pandemic gave rise to concern that children in South Carolina and the Upstate were suffering worsening abuse during the prolonged closure.
Greenville County Schools reopened Aug. 24, and since then, the number of abuse reports is higher than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. But disclosures still lag as students and teachers adjust to a hybrid schedule with limited in-person instruction. About a third of the district’s roughly 77,000 students learn entirely from home after opting into the virtual academy.
Julie Valentine Center Executive Director Shauna Galloway-Williams, whose organization counsels and advocates for abused children in the Upstate, said reports are still about half of what they were this time last year.
Between March and June, about 23 children were referred to the center each month, according to Julie Valentine’s records. That number rose to 34 in the month before schools reopened and in the weeks since the first day of school. In a normal year, the Julie Valentine’s referrals are typically in the 60s or 70s.
“What we’re seeing more of is severe cases, particularly with physical abuse cases,” Galloway-Williams said. “Just extreme cases of neglect and physical abuse.”
The drop is likely linked to teachers having less face-to-face time with students, who are in classrooms two days a week if they haven’t chosen the all-virtual option, Galloway-Williams said. The center will be conducting its annual training with teachers in the coming weeks, and Galloway-Williams said it will include information on how to identify signs of abuse virtually.
“Some of the things we’d look at is parents who are being demeaning or not supportive of their kids. Now is the time to pay even more attention to that,” she said. “The biggest thing I think teachers can do is to trust their guts.”
The number one sign a child is being abused, Galloway-Williams said, is if they aren’t logging in for virtual lessons at all. It’s also important for teachers to attempt to meet with children virtually when they aren’t in regular face-to-face contact, and to give them opportunities to reach out privately, whether through online messages or video chats.
She said a teacher with the district referred a student to the center after witnessing signs of abuse in the child’s home during a video chat.
The pandemic has limited the center’s outreach efforts. While Julie Valentine’s in-person courses at schools often result in reports from participating students, Galloway-Williams said the nonprofit has developed virtual sessions for students while access to schools is limited.
Shannon Lambert, executive director of the Pickens County Advocacy Center, said her organization has faced similar challenges as reports continue to lag.
“It’s difficult because we know that we aren’t able to get as much access or reach out to those kids like we used to,” she said.
While reports of child abuse to Lambert’s organization are down by between 50 and 60 percent from last year, she said, more college students from Clemson University and Southern Wesleyan have come forward in recent weeks to report sexual assault as they return to the area.
But the number of those reports is still low compared to other years, likely because of a staggered campus arrival schedule and a drop in the number of parties, where many college assaults happen. Restrictions on gatherings have likely made victims more reluctant to admit they were at a social gathering or party when they were assaulted. Lambert said her center has already served one student who did not want to formally report an assault because she was worried she’d get in trouble for violating her school’s social distancing policies.
“I think both those schools have amnesty rules, but college students are just worried about that no matter what,” Lambert said.
The Pickens County Advocacy Center is working to adapt to the educational landscape the pandemic has created, but progress is slow.
“It’s been very quiet,” Lambert said. “When you get on a hierarchy of stress and know you’re going to be staying home the majority of the time, that poses some difficult decisions for any victim to make on whether they’re going to disclose or not.”
Follow Conor Hughes on Twitter at @ConorJHughes.