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Calls to Missouri’s child abuse hotline have plummeted, worrying advocates

Calls to Missouri’s child abuse hotline have plummeted, worrying advocates

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JEFFERSON CITY — The number of calls to Missouri’s child abuse and neglect hotline has dropped by about 50% in the past two weeks.

That sudden decline has alarmed state officials and children’s advocates. They don’t think it reflects fewer cases of child abuse. Rather, they say it’s happening because the people who usually make the calls — including teachers and child care providers — aren’t seeing kids on a daily basis due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re worried about incidents going up and reporting going down,” said Jessica Seitz, public policy director for Missouri Kids First.

Teachers, child care workers, physicians and other professionals who work with children are required by state law to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect.

They make about 75% of calls to the hotline, Seitz said.

But all public school districts and charter schools in the state have closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The state has allowed child care centers to remain open, though there have been reports of declining enrollment and closures.

Jennifer Tidball, acting director of the Department of Social Services, said in a statement that teachers and child care providers are often the state’s best way to monitor a child’s well-being.

“This low number of calls is very abnormal for the hotline and our worst fear is that children are unsafe while at home,” Tidball said.

Seitz said Missouri KidsFirst is developing resources to educate people who aren’t mandated reporters and who might not know the hotline exists.

“The responsibility is going to be shifting onto different shoulders,” Seitz said.

She said the organization will also be working on tips for educators who are keeping in contact with students through virtual learning.

Meanwhile, shelter-at-home orders and new economic difficulties for families could threaten the safety of children.

The Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division, which oversees the hotline, is concerned social isolation and “unprecedented pressures” on families are increasing the risk to child safety.

Seitz said financial stress is a risk factor for abuse and neglect.

“Unfortunately, home is not always the safest place for our kids,” Seitz said.

The recent drop in child abuse and neglect reports is not confined to Missouri. The Illinois hotline has had a similarly dramatic decline in calls, according to ProPublica Illinois. Minnesota and Georgia have also witnessed a drop in reports, according to the Associated Press.

Missouri’s child abuse and neglect hotline is 800-392-3738. It is answered 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and callers can report anonymously, the state said.

Illinois’ child abuse and neglect hotline is 800-252-2873, and is also available around the clock.

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