April is National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month, which urges communities to work together to prevent child abuse and neglect and to promote the social and emotional well-being of children and families.

However, due to the circumstances caused by COVID-19, many experts fear that child abuse will increase, despite seeing a decrease in reports during the month of March.

On March 12, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order declaring a public health emergency due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin. The following day, he ordered all schools to close within the week. Later in March, Evers issued an emergency order, now referred to as the “Safer at Home” order, which banned all nonessential travel and business.

Abigail Hean Abigail Hean, U.W. Law School Class of 2021, is the student liaison to the Children and the Law Section Board. Her interests include juvenile justice, child welfare, and family law.

Systems Currently Limited

Many states have also issued similar orders to slow down the spread of the virus. But “Safer at Home” does not apply to everyone equally, least of all children who are at risk of abuse, neglect, or exposure to domestic violence during these stressful times. Worse, many of the systems that detect and prevent child abuse are currently limited in their capacity to protect children and families.

For example, school teachers and staff are often the first to notice signs of child abuse. They interact with children every day, and are required by Wis. Stat. section 48.981(2) to immediately refer those who they have reason to believe have been abused or neglected to the appropriate child welfare agency. In Wisconsin, educational personnel make up the largest percentage of child abuse reports, at roughly 18 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. Since children stopped attending school in March, the number of child abuse reports decreased by an average of 20 percent across the state, WSAW News in Wausau reported on April 3, 2020.

At the same time, experts worry that the combination of social isolation, economic uncertainty, and the general stress caused by the pandemic will lead to an increase in child abuse, and that the decrease in reports means fewer cases are being detected.

A Dangerous Decrease in Reports

Though it’s too early to know whether this is the case in Wisconsin, other states like Texas and Ohio have seen an increase in both the number and severity of child abuse cases, accompanied by a dangerous decrease in reports. The same trend was seen during the economic recession in 2008.

State and county agencies tasked with protecting children and families are also affected by the “Safer at Home” order. Most offices are now closed to the public, and “nonessential” services are being provided via phone or internet. Additionally, although CPS is still monitoring child abuse hotlines, in-person contact is limited. Gov. Evers has also suspended several DCF rules, including the 45-day time limit for initial determinations under DCF § 40.03(2)(f).

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended all in-person proceedings, with only a few exceptions. The Court also ordered that all jury trials be continued until after May 22. At this point, it is unclear how these changes have affected CHIPS cases.

Because of “Safer at Home,” children are isolated from interacting with others who are often critical in detecting signs of abuse or neglect. While certain precautions are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, communities and child welfare agencies must be especially diligent during these times to ensure the safety of all.

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