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Experts fear closed schools mean under-reported child abuse cases

Coronavirus pandemic has at-risk children stuck at home, away from mandatory abuse reporters

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More children than ever are home with stressed-out caregivers and aren’t being seen by some of the key mandatory abuse reporters at their schools.

Experts worry that's a volatile combination.

Pediatrician Dr. Randell Alexander, a member of the First Coast Child Protection Team, said social distancing highlights our need to reach out and check on families.

"We need to hear parents, and if they sound like they're under stress and who isn't to some extent? But particularly with their children,” Alexander said. “We need to be really on the phone. We need to be within 6 feet of them so we can be talking them down and helping them out in any way possible."

When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools, it also slowed calls to child abuse hotlines in Florida and Georgia, the I-TEAM found.

Experts worry that's not because abuse has lessened but because children aren't being seen by the teachers or counselors who would typically spot and report abuse.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services said reports of child abuse are down 40% across the state. In Glynn County, the I-TEAM found, the calls dropped by more than 50% immediately after schools closed in Brunswick in mid-March.

Reporting overall is also down in Florida, but in Jacksonville, cases of more serious child abuse increased from the same time last year. Eight children were treated at Wolfson Children's Hospital for injuries from abuse in March. One of them died. In March 2019, three children were hospitalized at Wolfson in abuse-related cases.

With no official plans to reopen schools before the fall, Alexander said it’s important for parents to take a minute and breathe in stressful times -- and to ask for help.

"If you’re the person involved, call out to people. There are certainly family friends, there are services that you can call as well,” Alexander told Jennifer Waugh in an interview Thursday on The Morning Show.

Alexander said he agrees with studies showing unemployment is a driving force to child abuse and neglect.

Officials in Florida and Georgia said the pandemic hasn't stopped their investigators from going into homes to investigate claims of physical or sexual abuse.

The Florida Department of Children and Families said its workers have personal protective equipment, so they are ready to respond, but calls need to come from the public if there are any warning signs of abuse.

To report abuse in Florida, call 1-800-962-2873 or go to reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us.

To report abuse in Georgia, call 1-855-GACHILD (1-855-422-4453). Reports are taken 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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