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Opinion: Child abuse reports are down, but is abuse just going unseen during the pandemic?

Among the many things that keep me awake at night is how our family will manage the coming start of the school year. Like so many families across Colorado, my wife and I are stuck in limbo.

We’re wondering what the school year will look like for our children – remote, in-person or hybrid – and how we’ll balance teaching our young kids while continuing to both work from home in this new environment.  

As a Chief Deputy District Attorney, I’ll add one more consideration to what keeps me awake at night. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colorado Department of Human Services has seen a 45% decrease in reports to the Child Abuse Reporting Hotline. Does this sharp drop in reports mean that child abuse has gone down? 

John Kellner

Considering some of the primary drivers of child abuse are things like stress, drinking and depression – all of which have risen during the pandemic – it’s unlikely child abuse is decreasing. My concern is that child abuse is going up, but is no longer being seen and reported. 

The hotline reporting numbers bear this out. During the first week of March, the child abuse hotline received 4,839 calls from teachers, pediatricians, neighbors and others, reporting concerns of child abuse. That number dropped off a cliff the week Colorado’s schools closed to only 2,435 reports. And such reports have remained steadily low since then.  

Most of us in law enforcement attribute this drop in reporting to at-risk kids not coming into contact with mandatory reporters that include teachers, school counselors, coaches, mental health professionals and school resource officers, all of whom are required to report signs of child abuse and neglect. 

A real-world case that happened in the 18th Judicial District involved a young 6-year-old who showed up at school with bruises on his arm that looked like they were caused by a large, strong hand gripping the child’s arm.  

The young boy’s teacher noticed the bruising and asked the child to speak with a school counselor who reported the situation to a school resource officer.  The school resource officer, in turn, found cigarette burns on the little boy’s body and took him to Children’s Hospital, where the doctors found evidence of bone fractures and other signs of long-term abuse. 

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That is when the case ended up on the desk of one of our deputy district attorneys, who prosecuted and convicted the boy’s father for this vicious abuse.

The child, in turn, was removed from the unsafe environment he had been forced to endure and moved into a safe home. It is possible this boy would still be enduring abuse at the hands of his parent if he had never come into contact with his teachers, counselor or SRO at school.  

There are thousands of children across Colorado who are at risk and need people outside of their home to pull back the curtain on abuse that is happening behind closed doors. It is tragically common that children often live with their abusers. 

We’ve all heard a lot about the impact remote learning is having on children without access to computers and the internet, and the strains remote learning is putting on working parents and their children. 

But as schools across the country make the difficult decision about whether to re-open their doors, another consideration that needs to be addressed is what to do about the children who are stuck in a home with their abuser and have no access to adults who can help.  

Many Denver-Metro school districts have already decided to start the school year remotely. Unfortunately, less kids in contact with mandatory reporters means less child abuse is seen and reported; which means more kids remain at risk. 

But there is hope. Even through remote learning I know some teachers have raised concerns of abuse to their local SROs. Those police officers have then taken it upon themselves to conduct home visits for at-risk kids. This isn’t the ideal model, but it’s far better than nothing. 

There’s also a way we can help address this problem. We, as a community, have to connect with each other. Set up virtual playdates with your kids’ friends, reach out to your neighbors, relatives and friends who may be struggling.

Use all the great tools of technology we have at our disposal to make this happen. Or just pick up the phone and call your friends and family. Reaching out to each other as adults lets us know that we’re not alone, and maybe decreases the isolation and stressors that lead to abuse.  

More importantly, reaching out to the kids around us lets them know that they’re not alone, especially if they need someone safe to talk to. And if you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, please call 1-844-CO-4-KIDS. 


John Kellner is a Chief Deputy District Attorney and candidate for District Attorney of the 18th Judicial District.


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