Colorado’s child abuse and neglect hotline received 26,000 fewer calls in 2020 than in 2019 as COVID-19 kept many children out of eyesight of the adults most likely to report concerns — teachers, child care workers and afterschool program staff.
Calls to the hotline (844-CO-4-Kids) plummeted in the spring when the pandemic forced schools to close and many childcare programs shuttered. While call volumes have increased as restrictions lifted, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services. That doesn’t mean less abuse is happening, experts said.
Risk factors for child abuse and neglect include social isolation, family stress, financial uncertainty and lack of child care or school, said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state’s Office of Children, Youth and Families.
“Those all played out during the pandemic,” she said.
The 13% decrease in calls in 2020 is the biggest year-to-year drop in call load in the past five years, a time period when the call line generally recorded an increase in the number of calls, data from the Colorado Department of Human Services shows. The hotline received 193,448 calls in 2020, the lowest number recorded in the past five years and down from 219,478 calls in 2019.
The drop in calls also means investigators opened fewer assessments to determine if abuse or neglect was happening. Investigators performed 34,127 assessments in 2020 thousands fewer than the 38,950 conducted the year prior.
“The decline doesn’t mean the kids are safe, the decline means that kids aren’t getting out of unsafe situations,” said Gina Maione Earles, executive director of Blue Sky Bridge, a child abuse prevention and intervention nonprofit in Boulder.
Staff members at Blue Sky Bridge conduct forensic interviews of children who may have been abused or neglected, but have done fewer this year as the number of cases dropped. The cases also have been more complex, Maione Earles said, including some involving human trafficking or internet exploitation. Nearly 13,000 children last year suffered abuse or neglect in Colorado, according to state data.
The decrease in the number of hotline calls is mostly attributable to a 30% decline in calls from educational professionals, the hotline data shows. Calls from medical professionals similarly decreased by 11%.
But there is a silver lining, Maione Earles said. Calls from family and friends increased by 5% last year.
“People are understanding their roles as trusted adults and stepping up,” Maione Earles said. “That’s a very hopeful thing.”
Castillo Cohen encouraged families who are struggling to reach out to service providers and friends for support. She also said that people should trust their instincts and contact professionals when they are concerned about a child.
“When families have the resources that they need and have the strength behind them of their network, that prevents child abuse and neglect,” she said.
Update: This story was updated at 5 p.m. Thursday to correct a fact about trends in the hotline’s call load. The number of calls to the hotline have dropped twice year-to-year over the past five years, though the decrease between 2019 and 2020 is the largest.
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