HELENA — The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) has seen a sharp drop in reports of child abuse and neglect since Governor Steve Bullock directed schools to close to slow the spread of COVID-19.
From March 8-14, which was the week prior to the closures, 765 calls a week were made on average each week to the Child Abuse Hotline (1-866-820-5437) from Montana. Since the closure, the number of calls has dropped by around 44 percent to an average of 425 calls a week.
“This decrease in calls is very concerning because teachers and school staff are mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, and we know they are one of the main sources of calls to the hotline,” DPHHS director Sheila Hogan said. “With schools closed, it’s important for all of us to take an active role by calling the hotline if you suspect abuse or neglect.”
DPHHS says this drop in call volume also shows the important role teachers play in a child’s well being. “In addition to the community they’re our eyes and ears,” said DPHHS public information officer Jon Ebelt. “They see children every day, they know them as well as anybody so they truly are an important piece.”
Ebelt stresses you don’t have to be a teacher or a member of Child & Family Services Division to report neglect or abuse. Anyone can make a report anonymously at any time by calling the hotline. “Just because we’re in a pandemic doesn’t mean that a family’s struggles end. If you see something or suspect something, then do something,” said Ebelt.
DPHHS recognizes these are unprecedented times, with unique financial insecurities and stresses. No two situations are exactly alike, and if a family is struggling they shouldn’t feel ashamed for needing help.
“If a family is struggling make sure they're asking for help, and make sure we’re reaching out to people and seeing if they do have everything they need, or how can people help,” said Ebelt.
“We want people to call the hotline, but we also want people to be looking out for their friends and neighbors before something happens. Before there’s child neglect or abuse.”
Child protection specialists continue to provide services for families on their caseload, even with current social distancing requirements. CFSD will continue to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect and take appropriate action during the course of their investigation.
CFSD has also made changes to family visitations due to COVID-19. Skype, Facetime, and other video communication services are being used where possible. If those options are not available, CFSD staff have been working with families to hold visitations that follow current health and safety recommendations.