Spotting child abuse during virtual learning

Reports of abuse remain alarmingly low during pandemic
Published: Oct. 27, 2020 at 1:30 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Concerns are growing that child abuse is going unnoticed during the pandemic. Reports of abuse and neglect in Madison are down significantly. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean less abuse is happening.

This time last year, the Madison police department had nearly 200 reports of child abuse and neglect. That includes physical abuse or neglect and sexual assault. This year the department has received 94 reports. That decrease has law enforcement and school officials worried.

“These children just don’t have a way to be seen and heard as easily by somebody who can reach out for support,” says Julie Incitti, a social work consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Teachers are some of the main reporters of child abuse and neglect. Virtual learning is challenging them to find ways they can spot signs of abuse, even when they aren’t with a student physically.

“Now you’re seeing the background of the child in their home. Where you didn’t see that before, you only saw what the child presented at school. So you can still look for things like behavioral changes, clothing, hygiene,” says Detective Sergeant Julie Johnson with Madison Police Department’s Special Victims Unit.

Sergeant Johnson also recommends looking for bruises or welts and for inappropriate items in the background like drugs, alcohol or weapons.

Incitti stresses the importance of the teacher following up with that child and their parents, to see if the concern warrants a report.

“Do some follow up questions, just looking for having a better understanding so they can determine if they truly do suspect that abuse or neglect is happening… And considering their own bias that they might be bringing to the situation and really think about the situation in terms of how can I support this child and family?”

Meanwhile, with kids spending so much more time on devices, Sergeant Johnson says reports of internet crimes against children in Madison are up significantly. She says sometimes children don’t even realize that they’ve become a victim. “If they’re spending an inordinate amount of time online or secrecy, shutting the door. ‘No you can’t come in, no you can’t come in’. A lot of these things that we’re seeing are committed in their very own bedrooms or their very own bathrooms. We all have a responsibility in this virtual learning and this virtual world now to try and be more aware of how kids are presenting and what steps we can take to help them during this time."” says Sergeant Johnson.

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