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During Child Abuse Prevention Month, professionals reflect on detecting abuse in a virtual world

SALISBURY — The Rowan County Department of Social Services in 2020 received fewer reports of child abuse than it did in the two years prior, but that isn’t cause for celebration.

From January through December 2020, DSS received 2,610 child protective services reports, more than 100 fewer than the 2,788 reports submitted in 2019 and slightly fewer than the 2,689 reports it received in 2018.

If 2020 had been a normal year, that might’ve been a good thing — a sign of progress. But since it was a year in which a global pandemic forced children out of schools, daycares and other public places, the seemingly positive trend is actually worrisome to local authorities.

“In some context, we would consider that good news, but based on the fact that we know many of our children have not been in school and daycare settings, not as many folks are observing them and their needs,” said Micah Ennis, director of Rowan County Social Services. “We are concerned that this might be a lack of reporting, an under reporting of existing child abuse and neglect.”

In addition to serving as director of Rowan County Social Services, Ennis is a member of the Community Child Protection Team. The team is composed of over 20 people who represent different facets of the community, including law enforcement, the justice system and child advocacy organizations.

Ennis was one of three members of the Community Child Protection Team to speak at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday. During the meeting, commissioners read and approved a proclamation declaring April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“(Child Abuse Prevention Month) is a reminder to ourselves, but it’s something that we constantly want to have on our minds,” Ennis said.

The Community Child Protection Team has been at the forefront of preventing and responding to child abuse in Rowan County since it was established in the 1990s. The group’s efforts, and those of the community, started to intensify after 1997 when three children died as a result of child abuse.

“It was just a terrible, terrible time for those families, for our department,” said Ennis, a social worker at the time. “I literally can remember where I was standing and who told me about one of the fatalities. The feeling in your body is just horrible. You feel so helpless because you’re supposed to be fixing this.”

A heightened awareness about child abuse and an influx of resources helped the county identify and locate weaknesses in its abuse prevention systems. It also led to the creation of several organizations, including Prevent Child Abuse Rowan and the Terrie Hess House.

Erin Moody, prevention and education coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse Rowan, also spoke during the commissioners meeting on Monday. 

Moody said her organization has noticed a recent decline in referrals from DSS and law enforcement agencies. The downward trend, she said, is “not good news for us.”

“Child advocacy centers across the nation have seen an extreme drop in the number of children that were seen, which does match the trend that was steadily climbing prior to COVID-19,” Moody said.

One of the potential factors for the likely increase in under-reported cases is a switch to virtual learning. Teachers, Ennis said, are often some of the first people to notice signals of child abuse.

“Anecdotally, we get a lot of reports from educational providers so that’s one of the things we’re worried about,” Ennis said.

With more children attending school virtually during the pandemic, observing indicators of abuse became more difficult for teachers.

“For a teacher or anyone who all of the sudden is Zooming with kids who may or not have their Zoom cameras on, you don’t get to observe them quite as closely,” Moody said. “They’ve really lost their opportunity to be able to observe kids and make sure they seem healthy and look healthy.”

The typical warning signs of child abuse — a drastic change in mood or behavior, poor academic performance, wearing unseasonable clothing to cover up bruises, visible bruises and scratches — can still be noticed on camera, Moody said. However, it takes a heightened sense of awareness.

Even if a teacher is able to notice a sign of abuse, discussing that with the student may prove challenging over a Zoom call.

“If you have a concern about a child in class you can pull them aside and you’re able to talk to them one-on-one in an environment that is safe for them,” Moody said. “But if you’re concerned about a child’s safety you can’t guarantee speaking to them over Zoom or calling them on the phone that there’s no one in the home is going to overhear that or listen to their answers. We’ve really lost a way to connect with children and inquire about their safety without causing harm to them.”

There were 220 investigated reports of child abuse in Rowan County reported by an educational provider from July 2019 to June 2020, compared to 240 the previous year and 356 the year before that. The percentage of investigated reports that were reported by educational personnel dropped from 21% in fiscal year 2019 to 15% in 2020.

To counteract the challenges that a virtual world poses to preventing child abuse, Moody said that Prevent Child Abuse Rowan distributed information to teachers and members of law enforcement explaining how they can look for signs online.

With more students returning to classrooms, Moody said she is hopeful reporting conditions will improve.

Ennis encourages all members of the Rowan County community to be on the lookout for indicators of abuse, both in children and in other vulnerable groups like older adults or people with disabilities. She also hopes that people will support local organization working to prevent child abuse, not only through monetary donations but also with their time.

More information about Prevent Child Abuse Rowan can be found online at preventchildabuserowan.org.

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