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School Closures Lead To Troubling Drop In Child Abuse Reports

UNICEF Report: 300 Million Cases Of Violence Against Children Ages 2 to 4
Hanna Barczyk for NPR
UNICEF Report: 300 Million Cases Of Violence Against Children Ages 2 to 4

One consequence of the mass school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic is a big drop in reports of child abuse, which worries child welfare advocates.

In the first week of school closures in San Diego County, the number of reports to the child abuse hotline went from 1,730 to 728 — a nearly 60% decline. These numbers, which mirror those nationwide, however, don’t mean that child abuse is decreasing.

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San Diego County Child Abuse Hotline: 858-560-2191

The reason for the drop is that teachers, counselors and other school officials — who are required by law to report any and all suspicions of abuse — haven’t been seeing their students each day.


“We have law enforcement and other folks who are mandated-reporters, but just by the nature of school personnel spending a good time with our youth, they do tend to be our eyes and ears quite a bit,” said Alfredo Guardado, assistant director of Child Welfare Services for San Diego County.

Guardado added Child Welfare Services is continuing investigations into suspected child abuse while maintaining social distance and abiding by public health advisories.

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During the week of March 9, the last week before school closures, San Diego County’s child abuse hotline received an average of 346 calls per weekday. During the week of March 16, the first week of school closures, the hotline received an average of 146 calls per day.

“Child abuse is still taking place, and probably more than ever given the stress of the current situation and having the entire family at home due to social isolation,” said Margarita Villagrana, a social work professor at San Diego State University. “Reports are less likely to be made because those who would have made a report are no longer in contact with the child.”


According to the most recent federal data available, about 20.5% of reports of suspected child abuse nationwide in 2018 came from education personnel.

Beyond teachers, social distancing eliminates contact between students and other trusted adults.

“Remember, you have daycare centers, you have extracurricular clubs, girl scouts, boy scouts, all these things,” said Robert Geffner, president of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego.

Additionally, the economic ripple effects of the coronavirus introduce new risks for child and domestic abuse.

“People are being laid off. They’re around their kids more,” Geffner said. “So if there are tendencies towards abuse, we’re concerned they’re being increased but not being reported.”

At San Diego Unified School District, which serves more than 100,000 students, the teacher’s union said concerns will increase the longer students are away from school.

“Our communities rely on our schools for more than just education. We rely on our schools for social services and to provide basic necessities, said Kisha Borden, president of San Diego Education Association, SDUSD’s teachers' union. “As we transition to a distance learning model next month, we must figure out how to continue to serve children in this way.”

Residents of San Diego County can report suspected child abuse at (858) 560-2191 or toll-free at (800) 344-6000.

School Closures Lead To Troubling Drop In Child Abuse Reports
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.