GREAT FALLS — When Montana first implemented COVID-19 restrictions and transitioned to remote learning for schools in March, the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services saw a 45% decrease in calls to their Child & Family Services division.
The Child Abuse Hotline, which can be reached at 1-866-820-5437, saw a 45% drop in calls between March and the previous month. Even though that difference dropped to 27% from March to May, when compared to last year, the numbers still tell an interesting story. May of 2020 saw about 20% less calls come in than May of 2019.
But why? Montana DPHHS Child and Family Services Deputy Administrator Nikki Grossberg says the department certainly believes that closure of schools plays a part in the numbers.
“Definitely within the shelter in place, with the kids being out of school,” Grossberg said. “Schools are a big reporter for us, so as those closed and they were getting up and running online, we saw a decrease, and I think just in general, when kids are not out in the public, at school, at camps, at daycares; as those things close, that impacts the number of people that are making reports, that are seeing kids and they have concerns.”
Teachers and other educators are mandatory reporters, which essentially means if they see abuse happening or have any reason to suspect that it is happening, they have a legal obligation to make sure a report is filed with the appropriate authorities.
Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore also says that schools play a role as a safe space for some students, who otherwise may not feel safe in their home or other shelter.
“I’ve been in this business for 39 years and I can tell you that, at all different ages and levels, there are children and young adults who come to our schools and it’s the best 6.5, 7 hours of their day,” said Moore. “At the high schools, (some of) the kids get involved in afterschool activities and they come into Saturday school on their own accord because it’s really the best place for them to be in a lot of cases, which is unfortunate.”
Grossberg said that year over year, child abuse hotlines most consistent reporters are teachers. Moore believes a big reason for that is the relationship that teachers form with their students. It’s something that Great Falls High School Art Department Chair Cortni Harant once referred to as “the triad of education,” teacher-student-parent-guardian.
Often times, students’ relationships with their educators leads them to increased levels of trust, which means some students feel like they can go to their teachers and talk to them if there is a problem at home or at all in their lives. Teachers can also sometimes notice subtle differences in a student’s mood or even physical appearance.
“You have to develop a rapport, make a connection with that learner, that child,” Moore explained. “They have to trust you and they have to look forward to being in your care every day if you want to be effective in teaching them.”
On the topic of the declining calls, although Grossberg says the call numbers are slowly rebounding, there is no reason to believe that there is any correlation between the number of calls and the actual number of instances of child abuse and neglect.
She went on to say that any type of isolation for children is concerning for the DPHHS, and that the role of making those calls and keeping an eye on potentially at-risk kids falls on the public, especially with teachers somewhat forced out of the watchdog role during remote learning.
“I think by taking an interest in their neighbors and their community, watching and just being involved,” replied Grossberg, when asked how members of the public can help the department in keeping kids safe. “That’s why we exist, is to be able to ask questions and screen for abuse and neglect, and so if they have questions or thoughts or concerns, call and let our specialists assess for if it’s abuse or neglect and go from there. Just being engaged is the biggest thing we can ask from community members.”
The Great Falls Public School district did put several measures in place and even had a number of meetings in regards to keeping an eye on students that had been struggling or had previously shown potential signs of abuse or neglect through remote-learning platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom, but it’s safe to assume that the task of “being there” for your students becomes significantly more difficult for teachers when they don’t get to see their students in person five days a week.