Wisconsin sees 25 percent drop in reports of child abuse during pandemic

State officials say the drop is related to kids not being face-to-face with teachers, and the numbers might not reflect reality.
Published: Apr. 5, 2021 at 8:18 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - States across the country saw reports of child abuse drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Wisconsin, those numbers fell by nearly 25 percent.

According to the Department of Children and Families, between March and November of 2019, there were 61,611 reports to Child Protective Services. During the same time period in 2020, there were 46,415.

The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) said the drop is related to kids not being in school during the pandemic. According to DPI, teachers make up a fifth of reports to Child Protective Services, but when schools shut down, seeing the signs of abuse became harder.

“If kids aren’t in front of mandated reporters, they might not have an adult to reach out to ask for help or to let them know that something’s wrong,” said Julie Incitti, DPI’s school social work consultant.

When schools shut down because of COVID-19, Incitti said state officials were concerned kids would fall through the cracks.

“During economic downturns, there is typically an increased risk of family violence including child abuse due to unanticipated job loss and economic insecurity,” she explained.

According to DPI, teachers make up 21 percent of reports to Child Protective Services and law enforcement, but in 2020, that dropped to just 14 percent.

“Educators are regularly trained in recognizing the signs of child abuse and neglect,” Incitti said.

Incitti explained DPI shared resources to help teachers catch those signs over virtual platforms, but it was still a challenge.

“Our mandated reporters had to come up with really creative solutions,” she said.

With kids not in front of their teachers, the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) hoped a new program could help. They rolled out the Speak Up Speak Out program in September 2020, another resource for students and staff.

“It is a confidential reporting system for any types of concerns around safety that students might have,” explained Kristen Devitt, DOJ’s director of the Office of School Safety.

Devitt said the program had been in the works for about two years, and DOJ wanted to roll it out in time for the new school year, whether or not schools were back in person.

“We could have that resource out there for our students who weren’t getting access to the student services personnel,” she explained.

After students, parents or school staff makes a report through the program, DOJ staff is available 24 hours a day to respond to the report and connect them with resources.

“I think that that was really beneficial especially during a time when kids are having less contact with the people that they trust,” Devitt said.

In instances of child abuse, Devitt said DOJ will report it to the Department of Children and Families and also bring it to the school’s attention and involve law enforcement if necessary.

“If the student is actually attending school in person, the school has resources there to help that child,” Devitt said.

With more kids going back to school in-person, Incitti said reports of child abuse could rise, but schools will work to keep the community as safe as possible and get kids the help they need.

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