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—Metro News Service Graphic

The statewide shutdowns aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus have added new challenges in identifying and preventing child abuse.

Lisa Cairo, administrator of Bedford County Children and Youth Services, said the number of calls her office handled in March was slightly up compared to the same period the prior year. Caseworkers investigated 95 reports last month, seven more than March 2019.

“Across the state, there have been stories about a decline in the number of cases,” Cairo said. “But we haven’t seen that. Our calls have not declined.”

Calls to Pennsylvania’s 24-hour hotline for reporting child abuse and neglect fell sharply in the days following Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close schools, according to a report by Spotlight PA. Child welfare advocates warned that people who are most likely to spot and report suspected abuse were confined to their homes and unable to keep their eyes on vulnerable children.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, an initiative intending to offer communities an opportunity to learn about the signs of child abuse and how to prevent it.

Cairo said it is particularly important this year for friends, family and neighbors to stay cognizant of potential signs of abuse, as stay-at-home orders have limited the amount of interaction children have outside their homes.

The state-mandated school building closings for the remainder of the academic year have significantly altered the way abuse can be reported.

“Kids are normally in school at this time where they’d have teachers to go to,” Cairo said. “Data shows that a third of (abuse) referrals made in 2018 were made by school personnel.”

While students are able to communicate with teachers and counselors online, Cairo said it can be difficult for them to report abuse from home.

“That’s not a thing they can do if their parent is sitting right there,” she said.

Younger children who don’t have access to things like cell phones or social media, and are not as closely connected to friend groups, are at an even greater risk, Cairo said.

Added stresses brought on by the coronavirus — such as unemployment or changes in schooling — can be a contributing factor to abuse and neglect Cairo said.

“People are stressed right now,” she said. “People are losing their jobs. Daycares are closing. People are struggling.”

The Children and Youth Services office has 16 caseworkers who are available 24 hours a day to respond to reports of abuse.

“I want people to know that during this pandemic, we’re still here,” Cairo said.

Social distancing guidelines have altered the way the office is handling its work, including restrictions on face-to-face interviews and going into homes. The county courthouse is closed to the public except for emergency situations.

The social distancing guidelines also have affect how children in group homes and foster care are able to meet with their families. Cairo referenced a child group home in Somerset County that has been limited to video conferencing with families due to the restrictions.

“The children don’t get that face-to-face contact,” Cairo said.

To report child abuse or neglect, call the CYS office at 623-4804 or the state ChildLine office at 1-800-932-0313.

Contact Will DeShong at wdeshong@bedfordgazette.com; 623-1151, ext. 150.

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