SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The number of calls to San Diego County's Child Abuse Hotline has dropped by more than half since schools across the region closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. That significant decrease has child advocates worried.
County data provided to 10News shows a more than 60 percent decrease in calls regarding allegations of child abuse or neglect.
According to the county, from March 2 to 15 there were 3,633 calls. Two weeks after schools closed, from March 30 to April 12 there were only 1,376 calls.
At a press conference on Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom said the stay-at-home order has significantly limited the number of in-person visits as it relates to the state’s child protective services.
"When the schools are closed that's another point of contact where people are able to make referrals based upon the interaction of children, the interaction of school nurses to one another," Newsom said.
"We do not believe that child abuse or domestic violence has decreased," said Robert Geffner with the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma. "We're more worried that it's increased even more, but the dangerousness is that the reports are dropping, so there's no intervention."
Geffner said children are isolated and in the house all day. He said if there's an abusive adult in the house, they are now around the child all day, every day. He said members of the community need to keep their eyes open for signs of abuse.
"Any signs of fear in a child, the way they are interacting with an adult, hearing screams or shouting or yelling from a neighbor, that could be a sign," Geffner said. "Any kind of bruises that you can see. These don't mean that abuse has occurred, but they are all sort of red flags. If you start seeing enough of these red flags, then there might be some concern to at least notify someone."
Officials with the County of San Diego tell 10News that Child Welfare Services (CWS) is closely monitoring hotline calls received.
"The visits being tracked include the child abuse/neglect referral investigations and monthly contacts with youth and families. CWS is continuing to assess safety and risk of all our Child Welfare involved children every day and on every investigative report. At the same time, the health and safety of our social work staff during this unprecedented pandemic is of vital importance."
According to the county, all initial investigation visits are being done in-person while adhering to county and CDC guidelines. Officials said all Child Abuse Hotline calls include questions to assess for potential or known exposure or confirmed presence of COVID-19.
In-person visits drop
It's not just new allegations of child abuse reported to hotlines that worry state officials. There are already thousands of kids in the foster system statewide who must receive monthly visits from caseworkers.
A spokesperson for the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency told 10News all children in foster care placements must receive their monthly caseworker visits.
Before the current state of emergency, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has considered only face-to-face visits to count toward this requirement. However, ACF has issued recent guidance allowing monthly caseworker visits to be done through videoconferencing for public health reasons, the spokesperson said.
"County of San Diego CWS has been tracking in-home visits on a daily basis since the governor's stay-at-home order and comparing to data from last year this time. In-person visits have decreased with the allowance of videoconferencing for monthly visits. The state just made amendments to the statewide database and we will soon have the ability to track monthly visits completed via videoconferencing."
At a press conference on Monday, the head of the state's Department of Social Services said, the only time a caseworker may conduct visits remotely is if the social worker has determined based on that individual assessment that it's appropriate to do so."
County workers that are conducting in-person visits are following guidelines from the California Department of Social Services and the county's local public health orders, according to a spokesperson.
Workers are required to complete a pre-screen phone call with the family to determine the family's risk of possible exposure, the county told 10News.
"Workers follow all public health orders to maintain safety the best they can during the visit by utilizing facial coverings, gloves, hand sanitizer, avoiding touching surfaces, and keeping social distancing," a spokesperson wrote.
Experts said now, more than ever, the community needs to pay attention, and if you suspect abuse or neglect, report it.
For more information, or to report suspected child abuse, call 858-560-2191.
Within the state of California, you can call toll-free at 1-800-344-6000.