Coronavirus Illinois: Child advocates concerned abuse may be going unaddressed during stay-at-home order

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Illinois child advocates are worried about some of the most vulnerable in our society: children.

Reports of child abuse and neglect are dramatically down in Illinois which would normally be welcome news, but those numbers may be the unintended consequence of the stay-at-home order.

Experts told the I-Team they believe the number of abuse cases is significantly higher than normal, it's just nobody is reporting them.

"We have fewer individuals that are there for these kids that can have eyes on them, that can detect when there's a problem, or for kids to report to," said Char Rivette, executive director of the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center. "We have kids at home 24/7 with family, probably right now, extended family. Under stressful isolating conditions, and those stressful isolating conditions are risk factors for increases in child abuse."

Rivette said her non-profit, which works with Chicago police and the Department of Children and Family Services, went from handling more than a dozen cases every day to only two or three.

"Mainly we're dealing with emergency cases, so these are sexual abuse cases, or other cases of severe trauma or severe abuse that need immediate attention. So, our first responders are still there for these kids in Chicago," Rivette said.

And, according to Kate Gordon Eller with the Gordon Foundation, neglect is also a concern because there are parents who are still going to work.

"Because they perform some type of essential job. And that can also bring a risk of neglect occurring. If a parent has nowhere for their child to go during the day or during the night whenever it is that they have to work, they may be forced with a choice of leaving their children home alone who may be too young to do that," she said.

According to DCFS, there were more than 6,000 calls to the state's child abuse hotline the week of March 9, before schools were closed statewide. Within two weeks, hotline reports went down nearly 57%.

"Some of our juvenile court is open for emergencies, including emergency temporary custody hearings that DCFS brings to court, and DCFS has been bringing cases to court and judges have been hearing them on an emergency basis, but the numbers are just way down," said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert.

Golbert applauded DCFS and other case workers for stepping up and doing as much as they currently can, but he said he's still worried about the future.

"When this starts to be behind us. And some semblance of normalcy returns, I fear, we're going to have a large backup of cases and learning of serious abuse that went on to address," he said.

Advocates offered advice for those who want to do something now.

"There's a lot of concern about what we can do. There's certainly limitations to the safety net right now," said Rivette. "Via phone, via Skype, via Zoom if you can, is really critical. So those of you who see news reports like this, you know if you can check on your, your friends, your family members especially ones that you know, might be at higher risk for stress, and maybe have histories and their family that could lead to abuse, I think any kind of outreach is really important at this time."

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services provided this response and a list of resources:

Protecting the safety, and wellbeing of children in Illinoisans is DCFS' top priority. Some of the systems in place to keep families safe in response to the COVID-19 crisis, such as closing of schools, daycares and a the issuing of a Stay at Home Order, mean children aren't being seen by child care providers or school staff. Because school personnel and social services accounted for 57% of all the calls to the DCFS child abuse and neglect hotline, the Department is seeing an expected drop in reports of abuse and neglect. We know that children across Illinois are still experiencing abuse and neglect in their homes . During this time when children are isolated and don't have adults outside of their home that are able to keep an eye on them, we encourage the community to stay connected - via phone or online - with families who may be struggling and offer support for them and their children.

If families are feeling overwhelmed or stressed, there are resources out there to connect to even while social distancing.

  • Get support regarding your anxiety or stress by speaking to a trained counselor at the national SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 (TTY 1-800-846-8517) or by texting "TalkWithUS" or "Hablanos" (for Spanish) to 66746.

  • NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) also offers online support groups - find your local NAMI affiliate at https://namiillinois.org

  • Contact your physician or your insurance company (if they have a consultation line) to ask health-related questions or to seek mental health support. Many mental health therapists are providing services via phone or videoconference at this time.

  • Parents struggling with infants' sleeping, crying or feeding can reach out to the Fussy Baby Network's "warm line" at (888) 431-BABY (2229) Monday-Friday 9a-5p to speak with an infant specialist in English or Spanish. After hours calls will be returned the next business day.

  • We also know that isolation can increase risk of intimate partner violence, which may involve or occur in the presence of children. If you are experiencing violence at home, the Illinois state domestic violence hotline can be reached at 877-863-6338 (877-TO END DV).
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