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Child abuse in county increasingly unreported during pandemic

By: Erin Freeman | Lynnwood Times Staff

Reports of child abuse in Snohomish County have gone down significantly since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic as vulnerable children lack exposure to intervening adults, driving many sexual or physical assault cases to go unreported. 

As restrictions to normalcy work to keep Washingtonians safe during the coronavirus pandemic, lack of exposure to adults outside of households is inadvertently creating barriers to assistance for children experiencing physical and sexual abuse. 

Teachers, coaches, extended family, and other adults interacting with children regularly flood the Child Protective Services (CPS) hotline with reports of suspected physical or sexual abuse. With schools closed indefinitely and other coronavirus pandemic-induced restrictions, reports between March and July were down by 50%. 

One in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. In Snohomish County, that’s potentially 18,000 children in need of sexual abuse intervention and treatment services, according to Dawson Place, a child advocacy center partnering with the Snohomish County Special Investigations Unit to provide services to the county’s child victims. An additional 7,500 children will need services for physical abuse, neglect, drug endangerment, or witness to a violent crime, totaling 25,500 over the next 18 years, says Matt McLaughlin, Director of Development at Dawson Place.

“Untreated child abuse victims tend to have lower self-esteem, increased anxiety, and depression,” said McLaughlin. “Without treatment these side-effects can translate into trouble at school, increased risk of teen pregnancy, drug/alcohol abuse, and other risky behaviors. These behaviors often lead to poverty, homelessness, and chronic disease and inhibit child abuse victims from reaching their full potential.”

In a typical week, Dawson Place receives approximately 23 referral reports of physical or sexual abuse, equating to roughly 1,000 each year. That number was cut in half. 

Lori Vanderburg, Executive Director of Dawson Place, says that the drop began almost immediately after Washington began its stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

“The kid referrals went down, and we assume that’s because they’re not around their usual community support… anyone who may be paying attention to how they’re doing,” said Vanderburg.

Since the county transitioned into Phase 2 of Governor Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan in June, residents have gradually begun to engage in activities outside of their homes. Vanderburg presumes this expanded exposure may be contributing to CPS report rates rising again. 

“From what I know right now, kids are more isolated [from]… anybody in their life who might intervene; they’re not having as much contact with them,” said Vanderburg. “I think people are going out more now… but over the last six months it’s limited their exposure to outside adults.” 

While report rates dramatically dropped until recently, in times of crisis and economic instability child abuse rates increase, says the Dawson Center. Thus, while cases were underreported for months, it’s presumable that more children in the county are experiencing abuse throughout the pandemic. 

“There’s a level of anxiety or fear that is affecting everybody, which affects parents’ ability to parent,” said Vanderburg. “Whether it be economic, social, or political there’s just a lot of tension, anxiety, anger, and fear. All of those things will potentially have an impact on kids.” 

For more information on how you can report suspected child abuse, visit https://www.dawsonplace.org/?page_id=15

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