(Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Reports of suspected child abuse in Louisiana have dropped by nearly 50 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered public schools for two months and kept children at home when compared to the same time last year, according to data provided by the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. 

Officials say the drop is not unexpected, because children are in contact with fewer adults each day, including many school staff who are legally required to report suspected abuse. But they worry abuse cases could actually be on the rise due to the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic. 

“Louisiana DCFS has seen a decline of about 50% in the number of reports of abuse and neglect since schools closed in mid-March,” DCFS Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare Dr. Rhenda Hodnett explained in an email earlier this week.

“We know that when stress levels increase, children become more at-risk,” Hodnett wrote.

Amanda Schroeder, President of Communities In Schools of the Gulf South, which provides counselors and social workers to schools in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, shares those concerns.

“I think as we are all aware, during this pandemic stress and anxiety levels are exacerbated,” Schroeder said in an interview. “When those levels go up we see a rise in child abuse and domestic abuse.”

During the school closure, from March 15 through May 19 of this year, DCFS received 5,460 reports. That’s about 54 percent of the 10,184 reports they received during that time period last year. (Not all reports result in investigations.) The state is still responding to and investigating reports, Hodnet wrote.

The pandemic is also making school counselors’ jobs trickier, as the Hechinger Report outlined in a story that details counselors caseloads in each state. Louisiana falls in the middle of the pack with 441 students per counselor, according to American School Counselors Association. 

Schroeder’s staffers are still seeing roughly 300 students a week through teletherapy sessions, either through videoconference or phone calls.

Locally, Schroeder said her organization also made fewer reports than usual. 

Between March 15 and May 15, her staff made three reports to DCFS. In 2019, between mid-March and May 5, they made 32. Schroeder also checked the quarter prior to the school closure, and in the two-and-a-half months before the state closed schools, they made 28 reports to the state. 

“While statistically you’d think the abuse rates are going up, the report rates have significantly gone down,” she said. 

“It’s much more difficult to see abuse when it is happening when you don’t have a kid in your classroom every day,” she said. “That is a major problem.”

Reports and Investigations

State investigators are still looking into the reports of suspected abuse they receive, DCFS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare Mona Michelli told The Lens in an email. 

“DCFS staff initiated in-person investigations on received reports meeting the legal criteria of abuse and/or neglect,” Michelli wrote. “To the extent possible and practicable, virtual technology has been used by caseworkers in providing ongoing case management services, while still ensuring the safety of children.”

Michelli wrote that the department had “a COVID-19 screening protocol for our staff to utilize when conducting home visits.”

“When there is a risk for COVID-19 exposure, a state-level practice support team is available 24 hours a day to provide guidance and support on how to proceed with cases, ensuring the safety of our staff while still providing necessary services,” she wrote.

“Some federal requirements regarding face-to-face visitation with foster children were waived, and instead required visitation through virtual technology,” she added.

As the state begins to reopen, Michelli said more in-person visits will occur with precautions.  

Another concern for Schroeder is children’s ability to speak privately while they are at home, both for the teletherapy sessions her staffers provide and for reporting abuse. 

“It’s become more difficult because if a child doesn’t have a confidential or secure place to speak with someone they are less likely to report anything,” she said. 

Children at home

Communities in Schools has 36 counselors and social workers that work across 20 schools in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. Most of the schools are in New Orleans, Schroeder said. 

Even though they work for CIS, once a staff member is assigned to a school they stay with the school, she said. The group serves over 7,000 students in the community and provides case management to 2,400 students.

“We provide broad services to students in the school, such as needed help with paying rent or if there was a death in the family and they needed grief counseling,” Schroeder explained. “But we case-manage kids that need ongoing services. For example when you’re talking about reporting abuse versus suspected abuse … CIS would then start casemanging that child.”

Counselors and social workers also help walk teachers through the DCFS reporting process when necessary. The law requires teachers and staff individually report the suspected abuse to the state. Then once a CIS staffer starts casemanaging a student where abuse is suspected, they may make a second report to the state if they observe bruises or other marks, Schroeder said. 

Now, New Orleans’ roughly 60,000 school-aged children — according to U.S. Census estimates — are at home. 

Communities in Schools site supervisor Max Davidson awaits a video teleconference with a student. According to statistics from the state, reports on potential abuse are down by nearly 50 percent during the COVID-19 school closure from the same time last year.

“We are still providing teletherapy to 300 students a week,” Schroeder said. “Some of these kids were already receiving therapy and some of these students we were alerted needed extra support while being at home.”

Schroeder said virtual sessions do present some challenges. 

“I think especially that it was challenging for our staff with younger kids. It’s very different to keep them on a 30-minute video telecall,” she said. “But I will say it is working. They are getting face to face time with someone they see as a caring adult in their life.”

But during the stay-at-home order and beginnings stages of reopening the state, children likely still won’t see as many adults who could notice abuse. Schroeder said the loss of the day-to-day connection with students makes spotting abuse more difficult.

Still they’ve had some teachers and staff put in reports during the school closure. 

“After we’ve made the report, the reporter receives a confirmation letter from the DCFS,” she said. “Those are being mailed to the school buildings. We are not receiving those letters at this time.”

Tacking on two additional months to that slow summer reporting season means in 2020, children will have gone nearly twice as long without routinely interacting with teachers, counselors, coaches, bus drivers or even other friends or family. 

On top of that, summer socialization will likely be reduced too, as officials encourage residents to limit social engagement to slow the spread of the virus. Summer camps are reopening with social distancing requirements and summer school in the city will be virtual, the NOLA Public Schools district announced.

Hodnet, from DCFS, said friends, families and neighbors should look out for each other.

“Be a resource for families who may be under more stress due to lost jobs/income, having to navigate safety-net programs they are unfamiliar with, having children home 24/7 and taking on the added role of educator, etc.” she wrote. “We know that when stress levels increase, children become more at-risk.”

She also recommends using video calls to check in on family members and friends.

“Get eyes not just on the adults but also the kids,” she wrote. “Ask about their well-being, how they’re feeling, what they’re doing to cope with the circumstances.”

If someone suspects a child in Louisiana is being abused or neglected, DCFS encourages them to call their Child Abuse Hotline at 1-855-4LA-KIDS (1-855-452-5437). 

The Keep Calm Through COVID Hotline (1-866-310-7977) offers confidential crisis counseling, 24/7.

The Kidline (1-800-CHILDREN or 1-800-244-5373) offers confidential parenting support, information and referrals, 24/7.

Clarification: A DCFS spokeswoman contacted The Lens after publication to clarify that department comments initially attributed to her should be attributed to Mona Michelli, DCFS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare.

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...