April is child abuse prevention month, and a top state official said the coronavirus crisis has put children at heightened risk.
Ross Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said he's worried about the welfare of children because families are experiencing severe financial strain. Many people have suddenly lost their jobs because businesses have shut down to comply with the governor’s measures to stem the spread of the virus. And with the long-term closure of schools, everyone is at home much more than normal.
“It exacerbates all of the behavioral health problems that people have, and children unfortunately often bear the brunt of that,” he said.
First-time claims for unemployment benefits in Washington soared to a record of more than 180,000 for the week of March 22-28. The state Department of Employment Security said that was seven times the number of filings during the peak week of the Great Recession.
Hunter said calls to the state's child abuse hotline have actually dropped about 40 percent since the coronavirus outbreak began. Teachers are often the people who spot signs of child abuse and place the calls, and with schools closed, the number of reports has fallen, he said.
But there likely will be many cases to investigate once school does resume, Hunter said.
“The 120,000 calls a year we get to our hotline don’t all come in evenly,” he said. “We get big batches right after long school vacations – right after Christmas, right after the school starts up – we see a surge.”
Hunter said child welfare investigations are continuing to happen right now, even with the governor's stay-at-home order. But his department has taken steps to reduce the risk of child welfare workers coming into contact with someone who may be infected with the virus.
The organization Prevent Child Abuse America has compiled resources and suggestions about managing stress and helping kids stay connected with friends while people stay at home to slow the pandemic. The Department of Children, Youth and Families also lists ways to prevent child abuse.