TAMPA, Fla. — Florida schools are continuing classes online for the rest of the semester due to the novel coronavirus, taking away one crucial step in uncovering and reporting child abuse and neglect.
Teachers, bus drivers, and cafeteria staff report a large number of child abuse cases because they interact with students every day and notice changes in behavior, hygiene, and health.
"Right now, majority of our calls are coming from law enforcement instead of teachers and school officials," said Abigayle Dhani, Senior Manager of Children's Advocacy and Sexual Assault Services at the Suncoast Center in Pinellas County.
With classes taking place online, it's harder for school staff to notice the signs of abuse or neglect of their students.
"We know kids are living their worst nightmare, trapped at home with their abuser," said Dhani. Schools provide relief for some students who are abused or mistreated at home.
"We average about 700 calls a month. In March, we had 701 calls and did 84 medical exams for children. April has been drastically different. We've had 338 calls and done only 31 exams," said Dhani.
Dhani said it's up to everyone else to step up and look for signs of abuse and neglect since teachers can't right now, "Everyone in the state of Florida is a mandatory reporter, if we suspect abuse or neglect is happening."
She offers these tips for preventing and reporting abuse:
- Look out for kids you may know in your own neighborhoods
- If you notice kids that normally play outside haven't been active, do a friendly check-in with the child's parents. Having someone to talk to during a stressful time may be helpful.
- Have your own children reach out to their friends and classmates to make sure everything is okay.
- Post about child abuse awareness on your social media accounts to spread the word.
- If you do suspect abuse, you can call the anonymous Florida Child Abuse hotline at 1-800-962-2873 or submit a tip online here.
"A lot of our calls just end up being a therapy session, since it's hard for families going through a really tough time, so we're equipped to handle the situation even if it's not a crisis," said Dhani. She says it's better to err on the side of caution since the Suncoast Center can help families with their needs if it turns out not to be an abuse or neglect situation.
Dhani also suggests using extra time at home to have a conversation with your own kids about house rules with extended screen time and online dangers, as well as body safety.
Talk about unsafe touches and how to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. Identify "safe adults" who are allowed to be around your children alone, as many families will be looking for child care providers that are new to them as parents go back to work and kids remain at home.
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