Advocates raise fear of unseen child abuse as reporting dips sharply amid virus

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PITTSFIELD — Reports of suspected child abuse and neglect have fallen dramatically since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the state Department of Children and Families. That worries child advocates in the Berkshires.

They say the pandemic has created obstacles to abuse intervention. The district attorney, meantime, says the public can help by learning to spot signs of abuse and neglect.

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington says reports of child abuse in Berkshire County have declined 52 percent in the past two months compared to this time last year. New investigations have declined 33 percent since the beginning of the year, she said.

"It's not that there's half the amount of abuse going on right now," Harrington said. "In fact, I'm sure that given the stressors of the situation, there's more."

Signs of abuse or neglect can include evidence of violence or injuries, poor hygiene or attire, family dysfunction, drug or alcohol abuse or change in mood or appearance, experts say, along with distress, changes in participation or social interactions.

School closings and the halt to extracurricular activities have limited interactions between children and trusted adults, experts say, leading to fewer disclosures of potential abuse or neglect — and therefore fewer reports.

Though anyone can file a report with the state Department of Children and Families, mandated reporters like teachers, physicians and first-responders account for about 80 percent of suspected abuse and neglect filings, according to DCF officials.

Leaders at 18 Degrees in Pittsfield, formerly Berkshire Children and Families, said people who aren't mandated reporters might hesitate to call DCF if they see something concerning, due to the fear of playing a part in the separation of families.

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Gina Blake, vice president of programs in the Berkshires at 18 Degrees, said although extreme action is sometimes necessary, most of the time, filing a report can be seen as "an invitation for help."

A DCF guide titled "A Family's Guide to Protective Services for Children," shared with The Eagle by a department spokesperson, says most children the department helps remain at home. "DCF's goal is to keep children safely at home and to support families," the guide says.

Colleen Holmes, president and CEO of 18 Degrees, said family support services are an important part of child abuse and neglect prevention because they can help families address issues that may be preventing them from meeting their children's needs. Lack of resources, such as food and safe housing, or lack of education on topics like problem-solving or childhood development, might all be factors.

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This does not mean families who are under-resourced are "on the verge of abuse."

"Let's not demonize families because they're struggling or having difficulty coping," Holmes said.

Blake and Holmes note the additional stresses families are facing in the pandemic, like financial struggles, isolation and mental health issues. Those burdens, combined with the limited ability of children and family advocates to provide in-person services, leave families lacking the support they need.

"Everything we're instructed to do in this pandemic goes against every tenet of good social work," Blake said.

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Holmes said organizations and agencies that work with families are aware of the under-reporting problem, along with other concerns during the pandemic. They are working to coordinate and collaborate with each other on solutions, she said.

"We're all adapting like crazy," Holmes said.

DCF has continued to make in-home visits during the pandemic in cases of emergencies, a spokesperson said. Generally, however, DCF and organizations like 18 Degrees have relied on phone calls, videoconferencing and alternative means of communication to maintain contact with families and children in need of support.

"Is it enough?" Holmes asked. "I don't think it's ever enough. It's never enough that there's one child that's in danger."

Harrington said those who have suffered most during the pandemic are the most vulnerable, such as "children in homes who aren't safe and are already on the margin." She said she wants to see more consideration of children's needs in plans to reopen civic life. Schools, daycare centers and other children's programs need attention.

"We owe it to these children to prioritize intervention," Harrington said. "If you see something, say something. Do something."

Caroline White can be reached at cwhite@berkshireeagle.com or at (563)-513-1065.


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