Story By: Dan Shere

As police receive more calls of domestic violence, they also have noticed a drop in child abuse cases — adults who often report those cases have not been as connected.

The same is true for cases of elder abuse, which also have dropped during the coronavirus pandemic.

During a conference call with county officials last month, Montgomery County police Chief Marcus Jones said “many of those who have been victimized or may be victimized aren’t being seen by the usual reporters such as teachers and health care workers.”

Child abuse often is reported through school, education, legal and law enforcement professionals, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those professionals are seeing children less often while people stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and classes have moved online.

Montgomery County officials and community advocates say they are worried about a drop in reporting of child abuse cases, but also a rise in the number of domestic violence calls.

Domestic violence calls have increased 25% since March 5, when Maryland reported its first three cases of COVID-19, Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said during a conference call on April 23. A number of the domestic violence calls recently, Jones noted, have involved a knife or a gun.

The Jewish Coalition for Domestic Abuse (JCADA), a nonprofit in Rockville that serves domestic violence victims across the region, has seen a 25% spike in calls to the organization’s helpline within the past week, Executive Director Amanda Katz told Bethesda Beat on Friday.

Katz said JCADA often is forwarded calls from the county’s Family Justice Center, a resource center in Rockville for victims of domestic violence that includes a mix of public and private agencies. The Family Justice Center provides legal, counseling and other types of services to victims.

JCADA also gets referrals from the county’s 24-hour crisis center, which is housed in the Department of Health and Human Services and helps patients experiencing mental health crises.

Katz said she expects the number of referrals to go up even more once society starts to reopen.

“Once [victims] have access to leaving their home or computers at the library or phones, we anticipate a really large increase in outreach to us for help,” she said.

Katz said her organization has handled a number of cases in which abusers prevent victims from seeing their children, with no recourse.

“Right now, the courts are closed to anything but protective orders, so people who have custody issues, alimony and child support, any of those family members are not being handled,” she said.

Katz said another consequence of the coronavirus pandemic has been that abusers use the virus as an excuse to kick victims out of their home.

“They’ll say to them, ‘Oh, you can go to the hospital and get medical care, but you can’t ever come back here because you’ll have COVID,’” she said.

During last month’s discussion with county officials, Jones also said police are worried about child abuse cases going unnoticed during the pandemic.

Lisa Merkin, the child welfare services administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an
interview that 1,339 calls for child abuse were screened in April 2019, leading to 244 investigations by the department.

In April of this year, the department had received 504 reports of child abuse and done 63 investigations.

Merkin said only a certain portion of calls that child welfare services gets are investigated.

“So we can get 175 calls, but maybe [one-third] or two-thirds of those become an investigation,” she explained.

Merkin urged people to call child welfare services if they notice one of the warning signs that a child might be abused or neglected.

“If you’re usually seeing a child outside and now you’re not seeing a child outside. If you’re not having contact with a child and it seems like it’s not your normal relationship, that would be cause to stop and think, ‘What’s going on?’” she said.

At The Treehouse, an organization that works with the county’s health department to help child abuse victims, Medical Director Dr. Evelyn Shukat said it has been “hauntingly quiet” since the pandemic started.

“The lack of numbers being reported are a bad omen,” she said.

Shukat said many in the public don’t report child abuse because they’re afraid there will be repercussions against them, but it is important to know that child abuse cases can be reported anonymously.

At Family Services Inc., a Gaithersburg nonprofit social services agency for at-risk youths, there have been fewer reports from the county’s child welfare services than usual, Jody Burghardt, the division director for children, youth and families, wrote in an email last week.

“There are increased concerns from staff across the board about possible increases in child abuse and neglect but the challenge has been being able to make reports as we are not currently seeing families face to face,” she wrote. “Since children are home and not interacting with the typical mandated reporters which includes our staff, reports are actually in decline.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

Resources

·Montgomery County Family Justice Center 240-773-0444 or safe@montgomerycountymd.gov

·Montgomery County Crisis Center 240-777-4000 (24 hours)

·Montgomery County Child Abuse and Neglect hotline 240-777-4417 (24 hours)

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