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Pinwheel gardens for child abuse prevention

Several blue pinwheels sit outside the entrance to the Klamath County Fairgrounds as part of Child Abuse Prevention Month Thursday, March 29, 2018.

While life has changed during COVID-19 and the government-mandated restrictions to help limit the spread of the virus, officials are calling attention to one alarming trend that can be seen across the country, as well as within Klamath County.

The number of reports of child abuse has decreased by 70% across the state of Oregon, according to Klamath-Lake CARES Executive Director Ken Morton. CARES stands for Child Abuse Response and Evaluation Services.

“It’s a phenomenon all over the United States right now is that there’s sort of woeful under-reporting, and at the same time, we’re aware that there’s unfortunately a lot of child abuse going on. The kind of cases, for instance, that we’ve seen at CARES, many of them have been quite concerning.”

Although the number of reports is down, Klamath and Lake District Manager for the Department of Human Services Maurita Johson said that doesn’t mean abuse isn’t happening. With children at home with their families during COVID-19 and limiting outings, Johnson said fewer mandatory reporters are interacting with children in our communities.

Some of those who most often report child abuse include teachers, daycare workers and medical professionals, who aren’t seeing children as they are no longer attending school and doctor’s offices have been limiting visits.

One of the ways Johnson said her office has been trying to combat the low rates of reporting is by working with community partners such as school districts to check in with families.

Once restrictions related to COVID-19 are lifted and people go back to their previous lifestyles, Morton said he anticipates an “onslaught” of reports as children return to school and get out of the house more.

Johnson said that while DHS has been able to use the time of lower reporting rates to catch up on things they’d been working on before the virus made it to the community, they are also preparing for a surge of reports once counties reopen.

Johnson encourages people, though, “if you see something, say something.” She hopes to mitigate the expected influx of reports by encouraging people to report suspected abuse sooner rather than later.

“We don’t want a child that is unsafe in the community to have to continue to be unsafe until that time happens. If they’re unsafe now we would rather be able to intervene and help that struggling family to create a safe environment for their child, and do it now,” she said. “And now that the weather’s getting nice and people can be out and about, we just hope that as they’re out and about social distancing their eyes are open to the potential lens of an unsafe child in our community.”

The lower reporting rates also coincide with Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is recognized throughout April. Morton noted the scale of the awareness campaign, represented with pinwheel gardens, last year compared to the reduced representation this year.

“But as we come to the end of it, it’s time to pause and think about what are we going to do going forward,” Morton said. “And I think the most important thing this year is to just redouble our efforts on watching out for the safety and well-being of kids on a lot of different levels.”

Both Johnson and Morton encourage people to stay vigilant and keep their eyes open for signs of abuse.

Johnson acknowledged that some are afraid of reporting child abuse and reminded people that they can call the Child Abuse Hotline anonymously or suggested that those who don’t want to report abuse themselves tell others who can report it.

Morton noted the complexity of child abuse and said that not everyone needs to be an expert on the issue to help.

“Abuse is a very complicated issue. There’s nothing simple about it, and we don’t ask the public to be experts at it,” Morton said. “But I say that to try to help people be comfortable with what they observe and what their gut is telling them about what they’re observing. And to, hopefully, if not anonymously, just go ahead and report, and let us do our work. We’re concerned that an awful lot has been going on the last two or three months that’s gone unreported. And that’s not just a local concern, it’s a national concern.”

With the variety of stressors affecting everyone during the pandemic, Johnson reminded people to look out for children.

“I’d much rather ensure safe and stable families now than having children be in an unsafe situation and us not knowing about it,” she said. “So we can go in and support them and really ensure that things are well in their homes.”