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‘We are their safe place’

When schools closed, child abuse reporting dropped

The number of child abuse and neglect reports to the state dropped significantly in the spring when the coronavirus outbreak abruptly closed schools and child care centers and fewer eyes were on children.

Now, as hundreds of thousands of students prepare to start their school year from home instead of in classrooms, officials are reminding teachers that state law says they must report suspected abuse, even if their interactions with students are online.

“For some students, we are their safe place,” said Dorran Tanner, student services coordinator at Alabaster City Schools. “We do see and we notice, because so much time is spent with kids in the classroom, we notice when there’s something’s off or something’s not right, or if there’s a pattern of something.”

Tanner started her career as a licensed clinical social worker. Now, underreported abuse is one of her largest concerns about the ongoing pandemic.

“Even if we’re virtual, we’re still mandatory reporters,” Tanner said. “So we’ve got to make sure that if we suspect or if we’re worried about a student that we check on him and make sure everything’s OK.”

The number of child abuse and neglect reports received by the Alabama Department of Human Resources dropped by 14 percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019. The decreases in April and May were 40 percent and nearly 22 percent, respectively. 

Prevention reports, taken when a child may be at risk of maltreatment but the situation doesn’t rise to the level of abuse or neglect, have also decreased in a similar pattern.

Tanner said her system is also taking steps to engage with students who have previously relied on the structure of a regular school day to stay focused.

“We’ve encouraged our district, our kids that we know are at risk, especially our teenagers that we know may not have adequate supervision or may have a lot of free time and temptations around them, we really encourage our staff to reach out to them by text, whatever means necessary to kind of just check in and make sure everything’s going well,” Tanner said.

Sometimes, the problems are easy to identify. At an Alabama State Board of Education meeting in July, member Cynthia McCarty, whose northeast Alabama district includes Morgan and Calhoun counties, relayed the story of a teacher who in the spring was teaching a class via an online platform. She could see her students, McCarty said. 

“A parent was beating a child in the background,” McCarty said at the board meeting. The teacher later alerted her principal and school counselor and they sat in on the class. Again, they saw the child being abused.

“I was stunned by this … probably it happens more than just this one instance,” McCarty told the board.

McCarty on Wednesday said DHR was alerted and the child was removed, at least temporarily, from the home. 

“We have to make sure we provide our educators the support they need to look out for the whole child,” McCarty said. “They know how to do that when the child is there, but this virtual world is new to all of us.”

Tanner tells educators to err on the side of protecting children.

“I would tell them to make the report, let DHR go out and make an assessment,” she said. “Not to scare parents, or scare kids, but we want to make sure kids are safe and DHR is the department that can do that, they can make those assessments.”

Children may be removed from their parents for multiple factors, said Karen Smith, ADHR deputy commissioner of Children and Family Services, but social workers usually select one primary reason when filing their reports. Through June 6 of this fiscal year, drug abuse by a parent was the No. 1 indicated reason at 30.7 percent, according to ADHR. Neglect and physical abuse followed at 15.5 percent and 10.2 percent.

Smith encourages teachers to pay attention to changes in a child’s demeanor and, as much as virtual systems will allow, their environment. Significant changes and concerns should be reported, she said. 

“If some school systems only conduct virtual learning, if they’re doing Zoom or whatever mechanism they have in place,  hopefully a teacher can still lay eyes on a child, look maybe at the environment, listen to see if they hear anything,” Smith said.

At Alabaster City Schools, an Anonymous Alerts system allows anyone to text concerns about school safety or a student’s home life. Students are encouraged to use it. Tanner said students may tell a friend what is going on in their home, rather than talk to adults. 

“We get a lot of reports from students concerned about other students,” she said. 

And this year, the system will require daily check-ins by virtual students with their teacher facilitators, Tanner said.

“So that if they start missing check-ins or not consistently checking in, we can immediately follow up and make sure everything’s OK,” she said.

“Learning is the No. 1 priority, but we have to make sure kids are safe, absolutely.”