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Calls to Colorado’s child abuse hotline fell during coronavirus, but harm to kids likely didn’t

Child welfare officials have been concerned throughout the coronavirus pandemic that kids were out of sight of teachers, doctors who must report abuse

As predicted, calls to the statewide child abuse and neglect hotline were down in 2020. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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As feared by child advocates, the number of calls to a statewide abuse and neglect hotline dropped significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. 

That’s not because abuse and neglect declined, but because the isolated days of COVID-19 have kept children out of sight. 

Calls to the hotline fell 13% compared with 2019 — that’s 193,448 calls in 2020, down from 219,478 the year before. As predicted, calls from teachers and other school workers dropped the most, by about 30% from the previous year. 

Each year, the hotline sees fewer calls during the summer months when children are not in school. And this year, many schools throughout the state were closed beginning in March. Several are still closed or on hybrid schedules in which kids and teens attend school in person only two days per week. 

The hotline saw an uptick in calls when schools reopened to some form of in-person learning this school year, but the volume has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, said Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, which includes the child welfare division. 

Reports to the hotline from doctors and other medical professionals declined by 11% last year. Reports from family and friends increased, but by only 5%. 

In normal years, calls from mandatory reporters — those required by law to report child abuse, which includes teachers, coaches, mental health professionals and law enforcement — make up a large portion of hotline reports, typically around 40%.

Back in July, the Colorado Department of Public Safety was already warning other law enforcement agencies about the severe drop in calls to the hotline. During the first week of March, the hotline had received 4,839 calls. And during the week of March 16, the first week schools shut down because of the coronavirus, the hotline received just 2,435 calls, according to a Department of Public Safety bulletin. 

Children are at higher risk for abuse and neglect during periods of social isolation, when families are experiencing financial insecurity and when parents are under stress. For those reasons, child welfare experts have predicted that child abuse and negelct likely increased during the pandemic, even if calls to the hotline did not.

“Coronavirus has brought many unknowns but what we do know is that we need one another,” Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families, said in a news release. 

The hotline, which went live in 2015, has seen an uptick in calls since then thanks to a public awareness campaign that included billboards and radio ads. About 80% of the reports are about allegations of neglect.

The calls are routed through a call center in Lamar, then linked to local county child welfare workers, who decide whether to open investigations. Most children are not removed from their homes as the result of a report to the hotline. About 70% of the time, county child welfare departments provide services to families rather than remove children from their parents. 

The number is 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437).

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