Myriad of problems face battle against child abuse
Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part feature story.
Last week, we looked at the problem of child abuse in the coronavirus era and the pandemic's effects on reporting, counseling and treatment. This week, we focus on the coronavirus pandemic's effect on domestic violence, the eventual re-start of school and the resulting impact on abuse reporting, and funding for the organizations that provide care.
With school closures, mass unemployment, stay-at-home orders, and the unprecedented stress of an economic crisis and a global pandemic all made part of our daily lives, child advocates fear for the welfare of children and the potential for abuse.
The Columbia County Sheriff's Office has reported an increase in driving under the influence of intoxicants, harassment and threats since the COVID-19 outbreak began.
In contrast, Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency says it received fewer reports of child abuse and neglect in March 2020 compared to March 2019, although reports have been decreasing in general over the past year. Calls concerning domestic violence were also down slightly from the prior year, according to the agency's director, Kelly Dutra.
Calls for law enforcement in Columbia County were 26.5% lower in March 2020 than March 2019, a Columbia 9-1-1 Communications District report shows.
SAFE of Columbia County, which offers resources to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, has had to adjust services amid the pandemic.
"We're here because we want people to be safe, safe from disease as well as safe from violence," Executive Director Ellyn Bell said.
SAFE operates a shelter, which has remained full since the pandemic began. As of this week, Bell said, it's beginning to accept new residents, which it had temporarily stopped doing over concerns about viral transmission.
"We are proceeding cautiously with very diligent cleaning in place when someone leaves," Bell said.
Read the first part in this two-part look at child abuse reporting issues during the coronavirus pandemic, originally published April 30, 2020.
Calls to SAFE's hotline at 503-397-6161 initially decreased during the pandemic, which Bell said concerned staff. But on Monday, May 4, Bell said calls had started to pick back up.
In Washington County, calls should go to the Domestic Violence Resource Center at 503-469-8620.
"There are a lot of factors that keep people from being able to call for assistance right now," Bell said.
For example, she explained, people might be stuck at home with their abuser, with less time apart — and less privacy — than they had before.
"We're also doing a lot of safety planning, because sometimes people are stuck in situations that are abusive right now," Bell said.
Advocates with the group help individuals make plans to stay as safe as possible while in an abusive relationship or trying to leave a volatile partner.
SAFE also offers support groups, though those have been suspended during the pandemic.
"We're starting this week with digital education groups on healthy relationships. Otherwise, everything has been one-on-one via phone or video chat," Bell said.
Echoing a concern expressed by child advocates, Bell frets about a potential increase in household violence during the shutdown.
"Even in situations where maybe there hasn't been violence in the past, people's tensions are higher," Bell said.
When schools re-open, service providers worry that reports of child abuse will skyrocket as social distancing guidelines loosen.
"When children are once again in contact with mandatory reporters, professionals expect to see an increase in the number of reports and a huge need for services, which will place strains on response agencies and mean an increased need for Amani Center forensic services," St. Helens' Amani Center warned recently.
The Amani Center offers child abuse assessments in Columbia County. Executive Director Cassy Miller said the center's ability to prepare for that anticipated surge is limited by financial constraints.
"We're doing a lot of anticipating and best guessing," Miller said. "Right now, we are not doing anything in terms of getting ready for that."
As a medical provider, Portland's CARES Northwest receives the majority of its funding from billing insurance. Executive Director Kevin Dowling said CARES will "never turn a family away for inability to pay," however.
CARES also receives money from state and federal programs, government and private grants, and individual donors. But with many foundations redirecting grant funds toward the COVID-19 response — and with the unemployment rate skyrocketing — private donations may dry up.
"I'm worried (that) at a time we need to help the most, those resources might not be there," Dowling said.
In light of the pandemic, the Amani Center canceled its annual Race Against Child Abuse event, which would have taken place April 25. The race has typically been the Amani Center's second-largest annual fundraising event.
Organizations across the country have been forced to cancel or postpone fundraising events at a time when unbudgeted expenses are on the rise.
CASA for Children has postponed filling five staff positions that opened in February and March.
The nonprofit, which serves Columbia, Washington and Multnomah counties, has also had to cancel two major fundraising events — the annual Bowl-A-Thon, which nets about $48,000 in a typical year, and the yearly auction, which generates roughly $550,000. It is instead holding the auction online later this month, but CASA said it expects to only make a little more than two-thirds of what it normally would.
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