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Education Department's child abuse outreach during Covid doesn't go far enough, experts say

The US Department of Education's muted response to concerns about unreported child abuse in the age of virtual learning is fueling new distress among family welfare experts and advocates.

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Paul LeBlanc
CNN — The US Department of Education's muted response to concerns about unreported child abuse in the age of virtual learning is fueling new distress among family welfare experts and advocates.

The Education Department declined to tell CNN on the record what steps have been taken to help teachers or other members of school communities spot signs of child abuse through a webcam during virtual teaching. Instead, a department spokesperson pointed to a series of online resources created by local and state education agencies that they help to make public.

That lack of federal guidance has set off alarm bells for experts.

"Clearly just posting resources on a website is not enough," said Maureen Kenny Winick, a Florida International University professor whose expertise includes child maltreatment.

"Sometimes accessing what you need takes many clicks and teachers may have more immediate concerns about academics and distance learning right now."

The concern over unreported child abuse stems from the premise that teachers, coaches and other adults who interact with children and are legally required to report signs of abuse can't always see red flags over Zoom or other remote connections -- if they're able to get in touch with at-risk kids at all.

And kids who are at-risk are less able to signal distress if their abusers are in the background of calls.

Figures provided to CNN from states across the country in the early months of the pandemic showed considerable drops in child abuse reports as social distancing measures kept kids out of school and out of sight of mandatory-reporters.

In response, the Education Department has publicized a slate of guidance and research about identifying at-risk children and checking in with them virtually.

But since much of the material is produced by local and state education agencies, the guidance often includes location-specific protocols that don't apply elsewhere. And some of the links lead to programs that could be cost-prohibitive for some teachers or school communities.

For example, the Education Department links to the Zero Abuse Project website, which offers "education and training resources, opportunities, and research to contribute to the elimination of child sexual abuse."

But the project's intensive virtual training comes at a price -- $250.

And the true cost of mitigating child abuse, experts say, will require a far bigger investment that expands well beyond training sessions and online guidelines.

"This is the time for public systems, including and especially schools, child welfare and public assistance; to rethink their practice and adapt to meet the needs of children and families," said Sheila Boxley, president & CEO of The Child Abuse Prevention Center.

"They must recognize and broaden their missions to support families in what they need now so that there is not a greater burden of need in the future."

That message was echoed by Bart Klika, chief research & strategy officer of Prevent Child Abuse America, who noted, "When parents are stressed, they are more likely to abuse their children."

Rates of reported child neglect, for example, increased by 24.28% between 2007 and 2009 during the Great Recession, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"When we reduce parental stress, we reduce child abuse," Klika said.

"Providing parents with supports, such as paid family leave, to care for their children or ensuring that children have safe, affordable childcare increases parental participation in the workforce and has been shown to reduce child abuse and neglect."

In the short-term however, lawmakers have looked to the Education Department to assist school communities in protecting children.

In May, a collection of more than 40 members of Congress wrote a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos noting that while keeping children out of school is important to combat the spread of Covid-19, it also brings "dangerous unintended consequences on our nation's children."

"As a society and as a government, we need to rise to meet this challenge and to enact additional safeguards to identify children in need of help and to give them guidance in seeking that help," the letter said.

The lawmakers specifically urged DeVos to release guidance that encourages state agencies to "require the addition of a reporting function (via voice, online chat, email, or other technology, based on the capacity of each state) into their online learning platforms so that children can report abuse to their state child abuse hotlines."

In the months since, no such guidance has been released.

Anyone worried about the possibility of abuse or neglect can contact the national child abuse hotline: 1-800-422-4453 or childhelphotline.org. Crisis counselors answer calls 24/7 and confidentially provide crisis intervention, information, and referrals.

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