The pandemic has robbed Hawaii’s child protective workers of one of the most reliable reporters of abuse: teachers and other school workers.

With school out and children at home, the sources of child abuse reporting have changed, according to data provided to Civil Beat by the state Department of Human Services.

While reports from teachers and others in schools dropped to zero in April, lower even than during summer breaks, those from neighbors and “other relatives” have gone up markedly in the past two months.

Advocates for abused children say there’s another way the pandemic may be hampering reporting — except in emergencies, social workers are no longer having face-to-face visits with children in foster care, where they might pick up on signs of abuse.

“We know it’s happening, just the chances of us catching it go down severely,” said Joe O’Connell, a foster parent and chair of East Hawaii Friends of Foster Families.

Punahou School. Campus Closed. April 30, 2020

Schools typically play a vital role in flagging abuse, but the COVID-19 pandemic has led to fewer reports during campus closures.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The most visible change wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic is reports from schools.

In April 2019, 41 reports came from educational personnel, according to Child Welfare Services data. That month, schools constituted the second biggest source of reports, behind law enforcement.

This April, the number dropped to zero.

Overall, schools are a significant reporter of child abuse, accounting for 460 reports in 2019 and so far in 2020. Only social services, medical and law enforcement personnel reported more.

But it’s not just the number of reported cases — it’s the quality. Experts say that some of the most reliable reports come from schools.

“Other people tend to overreact and maybe over-report, but when it comes from the school, it’s usually from the counselor or someone who has had a long-term relationship with the student,” said O’Connell. “The kid’s actually confiding in somebody that they trust and it tends to be more of an accurate report.”

For obvious reasons, it’s routine for school reports to drop off during the summer months, when teachers are not seeing students day in and day out. In July 2019, only three reports came from education personnel, for instance. But the lockdown means students are going longer with no school contact.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever had zero, even in the summer months,” said Tonia Mahi, an assistant Child Welfare Services Branch administrator at the Hawaii Department of Human Services. “Did people just stop abusing their kids, or you know, what happened? That’s a significant decrease because we have been trending upward.”

Overall, the number of reports to CWS dropped from 232 last April to 179 reports during April this year.

More Neighbors And Family Members Are Reporting

The coronavirus outbreak also seems to have shifted where reports of abuse and neglect are coming from.

As people locked down at home in March and April, more reports came from the categories of “other relatives” and “friends/neighbors.”

In the same period last year, for instance, four reports came in from friends and neighbors, compared to 19 in March and April this year. Meanwhile, 44 reports this year were registered by “other relatives,” an increase from 29 during the same time last year.

Unemployment in Hawaii has reached a record high, rising from 3% to 37% in a matter of months, the highest in the nation. Studies have shown that the risk of family violence may increase during natural disasters.

CWS employees such as Lavina Forvilly, a social worker on Oahu, still make in-person visits in response to emergency reports.

Department of Human Services

CWS has continued to operate amid business shutdowns and physical distancing orders. Social workers suit up in personal protective gear to make in-person visits in response to emergency calls about potential abuse or neglect.

The department recently received an order of 150 face shields and other personal protective gear for employees still working in the field.

In general, to limit contact and avoid the transmission of COVID-19, workers at CWS have been calling ahead to see if anyone in the household is sick.

“We’re trying to gather more information virtually before we respond face-to-face,” Mahi added.

DHS spokeswoman Amanda Stevens said reports that pose an immediate safety threat are still investigated in person. It’s the routine visits when “there isn’t any concern for the child” that have gone virtual, she said.

“All calls and concerns addressing immediate safety of a child require face-to-face contact,” Stevens said.

But O’Connell says that those routine visits to children in foster care can also detect signs of abuse. Just in East Hawaii, he said, there are as many as two to three reports in foster homes each month.

“It’s scary because the rate of abuse at foster homes is higher than the rate of abuse in the general population,” he said. “Under normal circumstances, they are going to school every day. This is a dream come true for a predator.”

 

Joe O’Connell, left, with his adopted daughters, son and friends. O’Connell is chair of East Hawaii Friends of Foster Families and worries about how COVID-19 has altered detecting abuse.

Joe O'Connell

Big Island Family Medicine Resident Physician Dr. Warren Yamashita also worries the shift to virtual meetings makes it harder for caseworkers to detect abuse.

In addition, he’s concerned that the lack of face-to-face meetings means he is not getting information he needs as a doctor from CWS caseworkers.

“As a family physician who cares for foster youth I’d like the caseworker to be considered the same status of essential worker as myself,” he said. “If they are taken out of commission it really affects my ability to care for the patient.”

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