LANSING, MI —
Reports of child abuse declined across the county during the pandemic.
In Michigan, reports decreased more than 20 percent between March and November compared to 2019 according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
But a decrease doesn't necessarily represent a decrease in abuse.
With schools switching to online learning and people having to shelter in place, it was harder for children to connect with the people they typically would tell about abuse, like teachers, therapists, or doctors.
“School officials and administrators are a big source of our CPS referrals that come into our department," said Demetrius Starling, the In-Home Services Bureau administrator for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, with the Children's Services Administration. "Those folks, not having direct contact with our kids was a concern."
Michigan had more than 147,000 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect in 2020, about a 15 percent drop from 2019. In 2020, more than 63,000 of those reports were assigned for field investigation, down from 94,000 in 2019.
The numbers look similar in Ingham County. In 2019, the county had a total of 6,316 suspected child abuse cases, which decreased to 5,394 during the pandemic.
Starling says the department realized the barrier early on and developed an outreach project to thousands of families.
“The outreach was intended to ensure that resources and services were afforded to families who are already identified as having potential child protection needs and will possibly be more vulnerable or at risk of COVID-19,” Starling said.
Starling says 14,000 families were identified to make contact with and they were able to contact more than 8,000 families beginning from April 2020 up until July. He says they were able to contact an additional 5,300 other families beginning in August to provide support and resources.
“We believe that by us putting boots on the ground and having staff go out in the field, and engage with those families more that we're showing our commitment to the community that even if we don't have folks in the schools, even if we don't have folks in the community that see these kids we're still doing our part,” Starling said.
The Children's Trust Fund is a partner with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. It has about 100 programs that support and educate parents, teach personal safety lessons for children and offer prevention programs for families with significant risks.
Executive Director Suzanne Greenberg said much of their work is done in schools, hospitals, and churches, and, when the pandemic hit, they had to pivot and figure out how to do things virtually.
“They would meet with the family through a window on the porch and drop off the needs. See if they needed diapers if they needed information and leave it on the porch and then leave and then the family could come get it and they were doing home visits in a way that had never been done,” Greenberg said.
“We also have provided a lot of community education on a variety of different issues and it's ranging from safe sleep and human trafficking and child sexual abuse and doing a lot more obviously virtually, which has allowed us to reach more people.”
Tashmica Torok is the founding co-director of the Firecracker Foundation in Lansing. Torok, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and incest, says she created the organization to provide holistic healing services to children who have experienced sexual violence and their families.
She says during the pandemic, her organization continued to provide mental health therapy sessions for free for children under the age of 18.
"We have not stopped working on child abuse prevention. We are constantly educating our community, doing training, building up our skills and capacity to respond and interrupt violence," Torok said.
She says the pandemic has not made their work easy, but they have pivoted and provided services and resources online.
"We did write a childcare collective toolkit for parents and caretakers to really sit with ways to create some community around caring for their own children and caring for the children in their lives during this period of social isolation; we view that as another way of preventing violence," Torok said.
The Firecracker Foundation has also launched a mutual aid fund for Black girls called the Sisters in Strength Mutual Aid Fund. It recognizes that Black girls are at the intersections of economic inequality and sexual violence and is a way to help them in this global pandemic.
She says they have maintained a steady number of clients but anticipate that their waitlist will grow over this year as schools open.
If there is a situation where you believe that child abuse or neglect is occurring Starling says not to take it upon yourself to be an investigator. You can call 855-444-3911, and centralized intake will determine if they will assign it for further investigation.
You can also use 2-1-1 for a list of resources like shelter, clothing, or transportation.
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is also a great resource for families and those in the community.
The most important thing is that if you see something and you have a concern, you say something. If there's a child in imminent danger, call 911.
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