Coronavirus crisis: Child abuse reports decline with Maine schools closed

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Amid concerns that stay-at-home orders may lead to a rise in instances of child abuse, calls to the state’s child abuse hotline have actually decreased.

But there is evidence the decline may be masking the problem, since fewer reports are coming from schools, which have been closed.  

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child and Family Services has seen a decline in calls to its child abuse and neglect hotline since COVID-19 restrictions have been put in place. DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said call volume last month declined by 32 percent after March 15.

Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of emergency March 15, and school closures in districts across the state, including Portland, began Monday, March 16.

More than 6,700 calls were received in March. A year ago, the hotline received nearly 8,000 calls.

Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services received nearly 8,000 calls in March 2019. (Courtesy OFCS)
Last month, with schools closed, the office received slightly more than 6,700 calls. (Courtesy OCFS)

Not all calls the hotline receives are reports of child abuse, Farwell noted. Hotline staff also field calls related to adult protective services and consents to treat adults or children in care, as well as calls from individuals seeking information on resources. 

Call volume regularly drops when school is not in session, Farwell said, and this can be attributed to the fact the hotline receives more reports from school personnel than from any other category of individuals.

In 2018, 22 percent of all reports were from school personnel. But in the last two weeks of March, this category represented only 7 percent of calls.  

The next highest categories in February were from medical personnel, social service workers, and law enforcement officials, each at 14 percent. In March the leading category of reporters was law enforcement, followed closely by a category that combines self and family reporting.

Farwell said the Office of Child and Family Services is working with the state Department of Education to develop guidance for school personnel and others on how to spot signs of abuse even while physically distancing. 

During the restrictions related to the pandemic, the office is continuing to investigate reports of abuse or neglect and connect families to community support. People are encouraged to report suspected abuse and neglect to the department at 1-800-452-1999.