The coronavirus pandemic caused an uptick in reports of child abuse in Fort Bend County that, even a year later, experts are still trying to fully understand, according to officials with Child Advocates of Fort Bend.
Overall, the advocacy program received about 6 percent more reports of child abuse in 2020 compared to 2019, said Ruthanne Mefford, the CEO of Child Advocates of Fort Bend. But in actuality, the number is much higher, because advocates noticed a decrease in reports during the first months of the pandemic, followed by an uptick of some 62 percent in later months in 2020, Mefford said.
The decline and rise in reports coincides almost exactly with the most severe shutdowns and reopenings.
“It’s not that the abuse wasn’t happening, but no one was observing the children,” Mefford said. “Teachers are the No. 1 reporters, as they’re most familiar with the children and see them every day.”
There’s some sense that the same trends bear out nationwide, according to Mefford.
Public records from all 50 states revealed that state agencies received 400,000 fewer child welfare concern reports and launched 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations compared to 2019, a decrease of about 18 percent in both total reports and investigations, according to a March 2021 report by the Associated Press.
The analysis looked at public records in all 50 state child welfare agencies and looked at more than a dozen indicators in 36 states, comparing information from March to November 2020 with the same period in the two previous years, according to the report.
But experts are concerned those numbers will spike at the end of the pandemic, according to the report.
Experts in Fort Bend County suspect a variety of factors might explain the uptick, Meffort said.
“I think part of it is these incidents are increasing,” she said. “And part of it is children are coming forward and disclosing what’s happening to them. We did a lot of public outreach during the pandemic, and I think it’s all contributing to what’s happening in Fort Bend County.”
The pandemic isn’t necessarily creating abusers out of non-abusers, but it is providing more isolated time alone with children, adding stressors on families and possibly pushing some people over the edge, Mefford said.
“Caregivers lost jobs and there’s the possibility of substance abuse,” she said. “We all know from reading that alcohol and drug use is up during the pandemic.”
As of late June 2020, about 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Before the pandemic, advocates in Fort Bend County conducted about 80 interviews per month with children, Mefford said. Now, they’re conducting about 160 per month, she said.
Advocates are also finding that children present more complex cases of child abuse than before the pandemic started, she said.
“They have more issues and their trauma is manifesting in so many ways,” she said.
If children had one issue before the pandemic – PTSD, for instance, caused by a single event – those might have multiplied.