Utah kids experiencing abuse still need help from trusted adults as COVID-19 continues, doctor says

There were fewer reports of child abuse in 2020 in the Beehive State, but it will take time to fully understand the effects the pandemic has had on families, according to Dr. Antoinette Laskey.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty classroom at Liberty Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 30, 2020. Schools serve as a safety net for children experiencing abuse, and kids didn't have as much access to help when people stayed home early in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Utah experts.

Editor’s note • The state abuse and neglect hotline is answered 24 hours a day at 855-323-3237. Kids who have a smartphone can use the SafeUT app, which is anonymous. Parents can contact helpmegrowutah.org for assistance, including family support centers and crisis nurseries.

Early in the pandemic, when people stayed home during lockdowns, it was “very, very, very quiet” at the clinics in Utah, where Dr. Antoinette Laskey and other professionals usually see children coming in for help after being abused.

That “was frightening to us, because we know that child abuse doesn’t just go away,” said Laskey, who is the division chief of child protection and family health at the University of Utah Health, as well as the medical director for Primary Children’s Hospital’s Center for Safe and Healthy Families.

But as the months went on, and places reopened and students went back to learning at school, “we started seeing cases going up,” Laskey said in a virtual news briefing Monday with Intermountain Healthcare.

Meanwhile, sexual assaults between teenagers have also returned to normal rates, as children were out again and socializing with their friends, she said.

Four months into 2021, we still don’t know the full effect that COVID-19 has had on child abuse rates in the Beehive State and across the country, according to Laskey. And even as kids go back to their usual safety nets, through school, church and sports, she said it’s still important that the adults in their lives “be the voice that children need.”

“When a child shares something with you, really understand that they’re giving you the opportunity to make a difference in their lives,” Laskey said. “And if you don’t take that opportunity, if you don’t do the right thing and call [Child Protective Services], you could be leaving that child in a really dangerous situation that could impact them forever.”

When pandemic restrictions went into place last spring in Utah, advocates and experts noticed that reports of child abuse in the state were down, and they worried kids weren’t getting the help they needed.

Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services received 38,183 calls and reports of child abuse in 2020, according to data provided to The Tribune on Monday. Of those, 19,402 were investigated by CPS, the data shows.

According to data, that’s down from 42,649 reports in 2019, when 22,016 were accepted for investigation. In 2018, the division received 41,806 reports, with 21,443 investigated by CPS.

There were also fewer referrals from schools, law enforcement, medical personnel, and family members in 2020 than in previous years. The biggest dips were in April, May and June in 2020, when there were 99 school referrals. During that same time frame in 2019, schools made 774 referrals, the data shows.

When looking at this early data, people should keep in mind that “we are still in the pandemic,” Sarah Welliver, spokesperson for Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services, said in an email.

“It will take time to start a reflective analysis to fully understand the effects of lockdown, economic impact and mental/emotional impact on vulnerable children and families,” according to Welliver.

One concern is how the increased need for domestic violence services in Utah and across the country during the pandemic potentially affected child abuse, Laskey said. In those situations, she said, “it is not unusual that children are harmed” when parents are in a physical altercation.

“Sometimes it’s because they are trying to protect a parent. Sometimes it’s because they’re being held by the parent when something is happening to them. Sometimes children are hurt as a way of hurting the other parent,” she said.

Laskey said, “It’s really important to understand that the psychological harm that comes to a child who is witnessing domestic violence, either just by hearing it, or seeing it, or seeing the after-effects of it, the consequences are lifelong.”

In Utah, everyone is considered to be a mandated reporter when it comes to child abuse, Laskey said, which means “that we all have a legal obligation, which is completely aside from the moral obligation, really, to speak up on behalf of children.”

“When children have something like this happening in their life, they need an adult to help them,” she said. “And the reality is, is that adult is often somebody outside of their household because abuse often happens in the home.”

Laskey said, “I can’t tell you the number of cases that we hear about where a neighbor actually heard somebody physically harming their child, hitting them, the child screaming and crying, and nobody said anything.”

She encourages people that “if you hear something that causes you to worry that that child is not safe, it’s important to call DCFS.”

These professionals are trained to investigate, Laskey said. Contacting DCFS “doesn’t mean that you’re saying for sure that abuses happened, or for sure that ‘the parents are bad,’” she said.

“What you’re doing is you’re getting a child help from somebody who can help figure out, what does this family need? What does this child need?” Laskey said.

Laskey pointed out that “things can get out of hand, even for great parents, because being a parent is hard, and it’s frustrating.” Everyone has seen a toddler have a meltdown in a grocery store, or a parent struggles to soothe their child on an airplane, she said.

In those moments, being able to relate about how “hard it is” and saying “I remember when my kids would do that,” can help diffuse things and “intervene safely on behalf of a child,” Laskey said.

If it’s a more serious situation, though, and “you believe a child is in immediate danger,” then you should call law enforcement and 911 and not intervene yourself, she said.

According to Laskey, Utahns can also find help from the Children’s Justice Centers across the state and the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children’s.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.