Reports of child abuse in Utah are down. Experts say it’s because schools closed early with COVID-19.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty classroom at Liberty Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 30, 2020.

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.

Maybe it’s an unusual bruise on a student’s arm that doesn’t quite match the explanation for how she got it. Or maybe she has suddenly become more quiet, nervous and withdrawn.

It might appear, too, as frequent absences at school — or maybe students not wanting to leave once they are there.

Teachers are trained to recognize those often subtle signs of child abuse. And for years, they’ve reported more incidents in Utah than any other source, including police. But that changed this spring when classes moved online because of the coronavirus.

A video chat is just not the same for spotting an injury or picking up on a student’s emotional state.

“Schools were our main area where cases were reported,” said Daniel Rich, the Child Protective Services administrator for Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services. “And with them out, our numbers have just dropped.”

Before the pandemic, educators were filing about 20% of the reports sent to DCFS on potential signs of abuse, according to data from the agency. In the months since public K-12 schools shut their doors — starting March 16 — that fell to about 7%.

Teachers reported 956 incidents, down from 2,689 reports from the same time frame in 2019.

Without kids in class, educators aren’t able to monitor as well for cases, Rich said. But that doesn’t mean there is less abuse. “It’s just not being seen,” he said, “by other individuals in the public.”

‘Behind doors’

Experts believe cases of child abuse have likely increased with schools closed — though it’s hard to know for sure.

Families have been told to stay at home to avoid getting sick. That means kids are likely to be closer to an adult who may be unsafe, said Christy Walker, the safe and healthy schools coordinator for the Utah Board of Education.

The pandemic, too, has added extra stress on parents facing unemployment, financial insecurity and isolation.

“We do have great concern for students who are going home to a dysfunctional environment,” Walker added. “I think only time will tell what people have been experiencing behind doors.”

Walker compares it to reports of domestic abuse; those have dramatically increased with the coronavirus.

She suspects that even with the lower number of reported cases of child abuse, the same trend is happening. The difference is, though, that children often don’t know how or where to talk about their own abuse — except at school, where they would normally spend most of their day. “That’s where their trusted adult is,” she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The playground equipment at Donner Trail Park in Salt Lake County is closed off due to the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Social distancing, too, can compound the issue. Kids may be unable to turn to a neighbor or relative for help in place of an educator.

“There aren’t as many people who have contact with the children that used to, and those contacts really shore up a family,” said Laurieann Thorpe, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah.

Reports of child abuse usually decline in the summer months with school out, as well. But there typically aren’t as many pressures during a normal summer break, and there is a defined beginning and end — unlike the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“Whenever school comes back into session after any kind of break, the number of reports of child abuse go up [again],” Thorpe said. She expects the same will happen when social distancing restrictions are lifted and kids return to normal spaces.

Administrators and teachers were still trying to interact with kids, but in a video chat, an abuser could be watching just off-screen.

For now, schools plan to have more counseling services available when classes resume in the fall.

Widespread impacts

Schools have seen the most dramatic decrease in reports, but overall most of the sources in Utah that typically alert DCFS to child abuse have also seen dips. That includes hospitals and social services staff.

The state saw its first coronavirus case in March. Since then, the abuse numbers have dropped each month when compared to the previous year. Consecutively, in both April and May, the total reports were more than 1,000 less than the totals in 2019.

Combined, the state has seen 15,732 reported incidents of child abuse through May. For the same time frame last year, it had 18,319. “There’s definitely a concern that incidents aren’t being reported,” said Rich, the DCFS administrator.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Experts expected some dip, but not as much as what’s occurred — and they didn’t anticipate it to touch so many areas, including health care.

Some parents haven’t been bringing in their children for their well-child checks, and “the numbers of vaccines administered have dropped,” said Dr. Antoinette Laskey, who works in pediatrics and family health at the University of Utah.

As COVID-19 spread and social distancing regulations were put into place in Utah, “we went from sort of what our normal baseline is to virtual silence, which means something’s not right,” Laskey said. There were weeks in March with no scheduled outpatient visits for child abuse exams at Primary Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Justice Centers across the state, she said.

It’s difficult to know for certain so early in the pandemic, Laskey added, but Utah seems to have had a different experience than other parts of the country.

“My colleagues on the East Coast and particularly in the Northeast were seeing dramatic upturns and really, really awful cases,” said Laskey, who’s also the medical director for the Center for Safe and Healthy Families. The joint program between the U. and Primary Children’s Hospital provides medical and mental health services to suspected victims of child abuse and their families

Kids in Virginia and Massachusetts have been brought into hospitals with broken arms and beaten faces that needed immediate attention, according to a report in The Washington Post.

According to Utah’s DCFS data on the cases that have been reported, physical abuse previously made up 20.38% of the reports made before the pandemic. Now, that’s at 18.53%. At the same time, allegations of emotional abuse and environmental neglect have gone up.

Laskey said it’s important not to exclude victims of child sexual abuse from conversations about general child abuse.

“We know children are more likely to be abused by somebody that they know than a stranger,” she noted. “And when you look at children who experience long-standing, ongoing sexual abuse, it very commonly is a household member. I can’t think of a more terrifying time for a child than losing the time that you can get away from this person who torments you.”

The most severe cases

In Salt Lake County, the number of cases of child abuse that result in criminal charges are down in February, March and April compared to last year (although still higher than the number of cases filed in 2018). But the courts have seen a spike in child sexual abuse filings.

District Attorney Sim Gill theorized that the more severe instances of child abuse, the ones uncovered through law enforcement and medical necessity, are still being reported and investigated at rates similar to before the coronavirus pandemic — which is a good thing.

“There is always going to be a baseline stability in [abuse], which is whether you’re in the COVID-19 pandemic or not, for fatal injuries, their common denominator is once that injury occurs, the need to bring in medical personnel,” he said.

When children are brought to the hospital with these injuries, police are alerted and a case is built from there.

Gill said that, like with every crime, the number of cases filed is going to be lower than how much abuse is actually happening. And focusing on data alone has other pitfalls.

For example, Gill said, “When we start looking at numbers and comparing stats, we sometimes lose the human factor of suffering and trauma and pain that is persistent.”

Salt Lake City police spokesman Greg Wilking said his department saw a slight drop-off in child abuse cases it investigated as schools closed. He said it was similar to the decrease each year when school ends for summer.

But there are some key differences. During a normal summer, children go to camp or play sports. It’s “getting out, being seen, versus being home,” Wilking said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, they’re not doing as much of that, so police are seeing even fewer cases than normal.

He referred to the other crisis rocking the country and its possible impacts on child abuse reporting: protests against police brutality and the call to defund police. ”If we take away police,” Wilking said, “that’s one less trusted adult out there for some of these kids.”

‘They are not alone’

With schools out and the regular reporters of child abuse harder to reach, experts say that everyone now has a role in watching for and responding to potential incidents.

If you had a relationship with children before the pandemic, reach out and make sure they’re OK, said Thorpe with Prevent Child Abuse Utah. Call them and ask about their pets, she said, “because there is a correlation between animal abuse and child abuse, so that can be an indicator that things are stressful.”

It may “feel a little intrusive and unnatural” to ask for a video chat or phone call with a child, Thorpe said, but adults need “to take responsibility and should try to make sure that the kids around them are safe.”

If a child tells you “something that happened to them,” added Laskey with the U., “it is so important that you believe and pass that information.” Ask the child why she or he is feeling unsafe or afraid. “Don’t interrogate,” but instead ask questions “that tells them that you are listening, that you can help them.”

Other signs to watch for include: hearing violent yelling at a neighbor’s house, not seeing kids play outside often, and frequent injuries on a child. Those are things that anyone can monitor.

Community members can be trained to recognize the potential signs — with the same programs that teachers use — and learn the best ways to respond with online resources provided for free from the Utah Board of Education. (For instance, it’s a common misunderstanding that calling about a concern will lead to children being removed from their homes. That’s usually the last option and comes in a particularly unsafe situation.)

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yellow caution tape on a closed playground at Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.

This summer, the state attorney general’s office and Children’s Justice Center Program also launched an initiative meant to raise awareness about child abuse and to help survivors feel less alone: the SHINE campaign.

Announced at a late May news conference to a crowd of masked reporters, the effort began well before COVID-19 existed, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said. But in this new reality, he said, the program is even more valuable.

”Today, it’s more important than ever for children who have suffered abuse to know that they are not broke and that they are not alone,” he said.

The campaign was paid for with federal funds and includes digital marketing, a public service announcement and billboards rolled out across the state, all of it meant to start a conversation about child abuse and end any stigma so survivors can realize they’re not alone. Their abuse doesn’t define them.

Reyes said he expects half of all Utahns to see one of those billboards and said the online video had been viewed around 400,000 times.

It’s important to remember, too, that when people realize that they’ve been abused, that revelation raises a number of other tough questions they must grapple with, said Rabbi Avremi Zippel, an ambassador for the SHINE campaign and a survivor of child sexual abuse.

“Beyond the pain, the torment they’re already living with, they are overcome by uncertainty,” he said. “What does that mean for their lives? What does it mean to be a survivor of child abuse? Will they grow up? Will they have normal relationships? Will they get a job? Will they be a functioning member of society?

“Will they be OK?”

The greatest assurance we can give these children, he said, is to show them, yes, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. And no one has to wait until school starts again to get help.

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.