LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Educators are the top reporters of child abuse and neglect in the nation, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2018, education personnel were responsible for 20.5% of child abuse and neglect reports in the United States. Legal and law enforcement personnel accounted for 18.7% of reports and social services personnel reported 10.7% of cases.
Lexington’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Executive Director Melynda Jamison said the organization received fewer reports of child abuse and neglect the moment businesses and schools shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a drop in numbers does not mean abuse has stopped, according to Jamison.
“A pandemic does not make child abuse and child neglect decrease,” Jamison said.
Jamison attributes the drop in reports to children being exposed to fewer adults outside of their homes who could potentially identify and report signs of abuse and neglect.
Jamison said her biggest concern for the upcoming school year is what will happen to abused and neglected children who have less face-to-face interaction with adults because of non-traditional instruction.
“The school environment might be one of the only places or the only place where the child is going outside of the home for someone to lay eyes on them,” Jamison said. “Virtually there would still be some interaction of course, but you’re not seeing the child in person so you might not notice bruising or different factors that you might when the child is in-person.”
Dr. Jennifer Grisham-Brown, a professor with the University of Kentucky’s College of Education, wants school districts to prioritize identifying and helping trauma in students.
“We need to be concerned about those children and make sure that we’re checking on them and make sure that we’re reaching out to them and that we realize that this is a serious situation and that those children need to be protected,” Grisham-Brown said.
Both Grisham-Brown and Jamison stressed the importance of actively looking for both physical and emotional signs of abuse and neglect in the classroom, regardless of whether that be online or in-person.
“How is the child interacting in the virtual classroom? Are they participating? And some children are shy and might not participate, but trying to really understand if there’s something going on that might not physically present itself,” said Jamison. “If a child is routinely being late or not even appearing in the virtual classroom or has sporadic attendance, same as in-person, that’s something that gets reported. But in a virtual setting, it’s even more important to take note of that.”
“I know that there are so many more pragmatic, logistical things that people have to think about right now but it is such an important point that we can’t overlook,” Grisham-Brown said.
Jamison also stressed that when signs are present, it’s important to report them rather than ignore them. However, the responsibility of looking out for abuse and neglect doesn’t fall on educators alone, but rather the community as a whole, according to Jamison.
“A big opportunity for our community right now is to be diligent and take notice of children and things that just don’t add up,” she said. “I think there’s really a role for all of us to play right now and if schools are not going to be in-person, it’s going to increase the need for people to be aware.”