When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, child-welfare advocates worried about  a spike in child abuse and neglect. Months later, those concerns continue as stress continues to take a toll on families and children spend more time than ever at home.

According to Assistant Commissioner Carmen Dias Petti, of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency within the state Department of Children and Families, said schools are one of largest referrals of child-abuse investigation tips.

In school, evidence of child abuse can be noticed by teachers and staff, who then alert authorities.

“If children are isolated, it makes it that much more difficult for us to be able to become aware of when kids are struggling or when they’re having these experiences," Dias Petti said.

Since the health emergency began five months ago, when schools and daycare centers were closed and doctor visits were curtailed, New Jersey’s child abuse and neglect hotline, 1-877-NJ-ABUSE, has had a decrease in calls. Dias Petti said it’s because there are fewer people coming in contact with youngsters, not because there is less child abuse.

“We just do not have the eyes on our kids that we used to,” she said.

Calls to the NJ Child Abuse Hotline:

May 2019 5,853 calls
May 2020 2,897 calls ▼-50.5%

June 2019 4,872 calls
June 2020 3,045 calls ▼-37.5%

July 2019 4,277 calls
July 2020 3,628 calls ▼-15%

Rush Russell, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, said that while major sources of stress have never been higher for most parents, major sources of reporting child abuse have been largely cut off.

He said everyone needs to be vigilant about this issue.

“What everybody can do is reach out to somebody and ask them how they’re doing,” he said. “Or you could ask a neighbor, you see them out for a walk with the dog, say how are you doing — just that type of engagement. Those kinds of informal supports, they can reduce the stress that is associated with child abuse.”

He pointed out people in neighborhoods used to count on each other for support, and that has decreased over time “but during these times I think it’s really critical that we recognize how important connections are.”

Russell added, “If you’re feeling overwhelmed or feeling stressed, it’s okay to ask for help.”

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