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Child abuse is likely going underreported during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's what you can do to help

With schools shut down, teachers aren't seeing signs of abuse and neglect.

WASHINGTON — Child protective services hotlines across the DMV are reporting hundreds fewer calls than normal since coronavirus restrictions began earlier this month.

WUSA9 has discovered cases of child abuse and neglect are likely going unreported as the coronavirus pandemic forces children inside – and out of view of the watchful eyes of teachers and other adults who serve as abuse reporters.

“Sometimes shelter is not shelter. Home is not safe,” said Michele Booth Cole, executive director of Safe Shores, a children’s advocacy center in Washington, D.C.

Cole says schools can be a safe haven for kids experiencing abuse. On average, she says, about 20% of child abuse reports are made by teachers – more than any other reporting group.

“So they get to know the kids,” Cole said. “They can spot whether the child comes in in the morning with a changed mood, or, obviously, if there are bruises.”

WUSA9 has discovered a troubling impact in the DMV since schools have been out of session.

In Virginia, the Department of Social Services says while the specific data isn’t readily available, it estimates it will receive about 1,600 fewer calls in March than in a normal month.

“Statewide, the Virginia Department of Social Services has experienced a marked decline in calls since March 12, 2020,” wrote Associate Director of Public Affairs Cletisha Lovelace in an email to WUSA9.

RELATED: How to escape abusive homes while social distancing

“We recognize that schools in particular play an integral role in ensuring the safety and well-being of children and youth, and we will be exploring ways to collaborate with the Virginia Department of Education on this matter," Lovelace wrote. "We will continue to monitor call volume throughout this COVID-19 crisis, and explore collective strategies with our public/private partners to address child safety concerns.”

Maryland drilled down even further in response to inquiries from WUSA9. It reported 482 calls to child protective services during the final week school was in session, and just 182 last week.

That's a 62% drop.

“It is the responsibility of each of us as members of the community to ensure a safe environment for all to thrive,” wrote Department of Human Services communications director Katherine Morris. “As Maryland’s human service agency, we are committed to protecting youth from abuse, neglect, and maltreatment, and we thank community members who come forward to report their concerns relating to vulnerable residents.”

D.C.’s Child and Family Services told us it usually gets about 100 calls every day. More than half of those reports typically come from school personnel.

They too are seeing a drop in those child abuse reports, although they could not tell us exactly how far the numbers are down in the District.

Brenda Donald, director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, said they are leaning on partnerships with agencies and community groups around the city to be additional sets of eyes and ears.

“The Metropolitan Police Department and organizations like our Healthy Families/Thriving Communities partners are being supportive in checking in on the welfare of children while they are home,” Donald wrote WUSA9.

“We all have a part to play in flattening the curve of coronavirus transmission and keeping children safe. We implore neighbors and family members to be extra vigilant during this time. CFSA is still operating, and our hotline accepts calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Cole says all this comes at a time when experts say the stress, financial insecurity and cabin fever that comes with the coronavirus pandemic, can all act as potential child abuse triggers.

“The fact that that is one of the known risk factors... Absolutely it’s a concern,” Cole said.

Cole says the best thing the community can do is be the eyes and ears for children in your neighborhood. If you see something or hear something through the walls, call Child Protective Services or law enforcement at the contact information below.

And if you know of a family where a parent might be overwhelmed right now and need a break, Cole suggested being what Safe Shores calls the "Virtual Village." That could mean:

  • Calling parents/caregivers just to check in and let them vent a little
  • With parents' permission, talking to other people's kids so their parents can take a short break
  • Reading a story to relatives'/friends' children via FaceTime or speaker phone
  • Playing board games or video games remotely

Cole also tells WUSA9 Safe Shores will be adding a COVID-19 resource page to its website this week.

RELATED: Maryland kindergarten teacher writes digital letters to students to stay connected

RELATED: Quarantine and school closures: What age can you legally leave your kid at home alone?

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