A garden at Liberty House, a child abuse assessment center serving Marion and Polk Counties. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Alison Kelley worries the coronavirus is putting additional stress on struggling families in ways that are leading to child abuse that is largely masked from public view.

The CEO of Liberty House, a child abuse assessment center serving Marion and Polk counties, said abuse is historically underreported, with some estimates that only 5% ever comes to light.

Now providers fear that children continue to be abused and that abuse could be more severe despite a drop in reports to the state’s child abuse hotline.

In last eight weeks, Kelley said the clinic has seen children with more severe injuries and younger children with more severe injuries, like infants with broken bones.

“When something like COVID-19 comes along, it’s like pouring jet fuel on a fire. The problems exist and yet the safety mechanisms, the additional caring eyes, are not able to be there,” she said.

The state Department of Human Services said calls to the state hotline that helps flag abuse initially saw a 70% drop when Gov. Kate Brown issued her order on March 23 for people to stay home.

Since then, the call volume reporting suspected abuse has gone up but still is about half the number of calls in the last week of April compared to last year, according to DHS spokesman Jake Sunderland.

School employees, like teachers or coaches, in the past have accounted for about one out of four child abuse reports to the hotline. The reports tend to be cyclical, dwindling in the summer and increasing in September and January when students return to class. Law enforcement accounts for around 17% of reports, according to DHS data.

When stay-at-home orders lift, local service providers are expecting a flood of reports of children abused in the weeks Oregon was in some form of lockdown.

Liberty House only saw the most urgent cases of physical and sexual abuse in March and April and is only offering appointments if children aren’t displaying signs of being ill.

Kelley said the clinic has seen between 9 and 15 children each week. One week the clinic saw 19 children.  

“Even in normal times, that’s high,” she said.

She said the number of calls that go to the child abuse hotline and are assigned for investigation don’t show how prevalent child abuse is.

A majority of the abuse that’s reported to the hotline, 43%, is neglect. Around 40% of reports are threat of harm.

“We do know that some forms of abuse like physical abuse, can happen when parents are at their wits’ end, when the wheels are coming off,” Kelley said. “We have many families in Marion and Polk where the parents have lost their jobs and they’re really struggling with how to survive.”

Kelley said the clinic is scheduling less-urgent appointments into June because May is booked. The clinic leaves some availability for same-day appointments to work with children when necessary, she said.

Liberty House recently hired an additional full-time clinician, bringing the total of full-time providers up to four. The clinic also has several part-time providers and is bringing on another clinician in August, a month before they typically see a surge in cases when kids return to school.

Kelley said when social distancing restrictions lift, she anticipates referrals to DHS and Liberty House will skyrocket.

“We do know the families that we are coming into contact with do seem to be very effected emotionally by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s difficult for a lot of families to maintain order and peace and structure in their home because their daily lives are completely unstructured now. There are multiple layers of disruption. People have a lot of different emotions that they haven’t even begun to name about the way this is affecting them,” she said.

Kelley said there’s a strong correlation between child abuse and domestic violence. She said research shows between 35% to 65% of cases of domestic violence also involve child abuse.

Center for Hope and Safety, a Salem nonprofit which serves survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, has been as busy as ever.

Executive Director Jayne Downing said as isolation has increased, so has the abuse. Those difficulties are compounded if an abuser has lost their job, she said.

Downing said the center is receiving about the same number of calls that it normally would, but that requests for emergency shelter have more than doubled over this time last year.

“Things got quiet for a little bit. That didn’t last long,” she said.

She said as restrictions ease, the center is expecting to see even more victims of domestic abuse.

“It’s been very, very difficult. We’re doing what we can to help people. We’ve been working nonstop,” Downing said.

The center has increased its staffing in the office over the past two months from six to 17 because of how quickly demand ramped up.

She said abusers have been threatening to expose their victims to the coronavirus, not allowing them to leave the house or telling them they’ll get sick.

Sunderland with DHS said the primary cause of abuse and neglect is crisis in the family, whether that’s through economic insecurity or substance use.

“Oregonians are facing unprecedented economic insecurity. Everyone is traumatized by this global pandemic,” he said.

Sunderland said DHS doesn’t have the data for how the pandemic is impacting the child abuse cases because individual assessments can take up to 90 days.

 “Even though it feels like an eternity it’s been about six weeks since schools closed,” he said Friday.

Sunderland pointed to record sales of alcohol and marijuana as contributing to potential abuse.

“We’re concerned that as caregivers experience crisis and are traumatized and are self-medicating, there is going to be a higher than average risk of chronic neglect,” Sunderland said.

He said most of the fatalities investigated by the state resulted from unsafe sleep with infants, many of which involve alcohol or drug use.

Sunderland said his agency is working with teachers and employees processing food benefit applications to train them to recognize the signs of a family in crisis as a preventative measure.

“How can you provide support to prevent the crisis from getting so bad that the outcome is abuse and neglect?” Sunderland said.

DHS included a list of questions on its website for how to check in with parents and children during the pandemic, which includes asking if everyone has what they need to get by.

Sunderland encourages residents to check on their neighbors and contact the hotline at 1-855-503-7233 if they suspect abuse or neglect.

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