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Child abuse fears increase as families isolate during coronavirus pandemic

Advocates are raising alarm bells about a potential uptick in child abuse as more families isolate at home amid the coronavirus pandemic. One Texas children's hospital says two children died of suspected abuse on the same day in March, and the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is reporting a 20% increase in calls and more than four times the number of texts compared to the same time last year.

While advocates typically use National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April to raise awareness about dangers faced by kids at home, this year, they say it's even more urgent because of the pandemic. Stress related to school closures, economic uncertainty and job loss are all possible triggers, said Rebecca Cooper, national spokesperson for the nonprofit group Childhelp, which works to prevent and respond to child abuse.

"In our rush to try and prepare for the pandemic, people are forgetting these victims," Cooper said. "We have children who will die as a direct result of this pandemic, as a result of child abuse." 

Medical professionals are concerned as well. While it's not clear that the two deaths of preschool-age children March 21 at the Cook Children's Pediatric Medical Center in Fort Worth are directly related to coronavirus stressors, doctors there say they want the community to be on alert to possible cases of child abuse. The hospital treated five other children the same week with suspected abuse injuries serious enough to be admitted to the hospital, said Dr. Jayme Coffman, medical director of the hospital's Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

"We normally only have six or seven deaths a year in our institution from physical abuse, so that was alarming to have so many serious cases and the deaths so close together at this time when everyone's experiencing high stress due to COVID-19," Coffman told CBS News.

The hospital has not revealed the children's identities because of privacy concerns. While autopsies are pending, both children had internal injuries, head trauma and skin injuries that led doctors to suspect abuse, Coffman said. One child died in the hospital's emergency room, while the other died several days after being admitted.

The Fort Worth Police department says their Crimes Against Children Unit is investigating along with Texas Child Protective Services, but didn't release further information regarding possible arrests or charges.

Coffman said the two children who died were older than the infant abuse victims her hospital typically treats, another red flag that the abuse is linked to the pandemic.

"We also were concerned because schools are closed, children are at home that would not normally be at home, and there's increased stress within families," Coffman said.

Coffman's unit had already been concerned about the potential impact of stress related to the coronavirus outbreak. That's because the department had seen increases in child fatalities and serious physical abuse during the 2008 recession, a trend noted by child welfare workers and medical professionals around the country. But the speed and severity of the spike in March was so concerning to them they decided to reach out to the media.

"We don't know if the stress related to the current situation is correlated, but we were concerned enough we wanted to warn our community to be aware and look out," Coffman said.

Calls and texts to Childhelp's National Child Abuse hotline also spiked in March, according to data released by the group. In fiscal year 2019, the group had contact with more than 90,000 people via the hotline across the U.S. and Canada. Calls between March 1 and March 24 were up 20% compared to the same time period last year, and texts have gone up 439%, said Cooper.

The group launched text and online chat capabilities in February 2019, so part of the reason for the large increase in texts is increased awareness, Cooper said. But Cooper said young people are more likely to contact the hotline's crisis counselors via text or online chat than a phone call, so the increase in the service also suggests that children are scared, stressed, and in some cases, isolated with their abusers because of closed schools and stay-at-home directives.

One girl's story was emblematic of the obstacles faced now by young abuse victims, according to Cooper: "She said, 'My school is closing for three weeks, and school has always been my safe space. Where do I go now?'"

In another case, hotline counselors received a call about a health care worker on the front lines of the pandemic who had left her two elementary school-age children in the care of her boyfriend because their school had been canceled and she didn't have child care. The worker's sibling called to report the worker's boyfriend was stressed out and angry and had physically abused at least one of the boys, leaving him with visible marks. The younger child also showed signs of abuse.

The case illustrates dangers of isolation, compounded by the added pressures on health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic, Cooper said.

Just as the demand for their services is growing, ChildHelp has had to close all but the most essential services for child abuse victims in their brick-and-mortar facilities across the country because of the pandemic, Cooper said. And many of the local services to which they would typically connect victims are also closed.

At the same time, some state and local agencies are reporting a drop in reports of potential child abuse — raising concerns that abuse is continuing at home outside of the view of teachers or social workers, who are mandated by law to report it. In Illinois, the Department of Children and Family Services reported a 45% drop in calls to its child abuse hotline from the first to the third week in March, reports CBS Chicago. And in Philadelphia, calls to the city's child abuse hotline were down by more than half  inthe last week in March compared to the same time last year, reports CBS radio affiliate KYW.

"There is no formula or algorithm to determine the true amount of child abuse that is occurring in the city but I don't think less reports means there are less incidents of child abuse," Philadelphia's deputy human services commissioner Sam Harrison told the station.

And despite the increase in calls and texts to the national Childhelp hotline, Cooper said it's likely many more cases are going unreported by teachers and others in a child's community network.

"We absolutely count on people outside the home to see and report suspected cases, and the more children are isolated from outside contact, the fewer reports we will get from people who we count on," Cooper said.

Cooper said her group fears the problem will grow worse before it gets better as risk factors including job loss, loss of housing and loss of access to outside care all increase. She urged anyone who suspects abuse to report it, and said the group can also provide help for families under stress.

Contact the national Childhelp hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child. Callers can remain anonymous. Crisis counselors are available 24 hours a day and can communicate via translators in over 170 languages. See text and online chat options here.

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