Data shows a sudden drop in child abuse and reports coming into the Department of Social Services when schools closed their doors in early 2020 because of the pandemic.
And the data showed cause for alarm.
It is striking.
It illustrates why Missouri sent out a news release, warning the public to be aware of possible abuse or neglect, said Sara Smith, deputy director of the DSS children's Division.
"You might remember in March of 2020, the department sent a press release regarding the concerning drop in child abuse and neglect reporting," Smith said. "It was approximately 50 percent. That trend stayed pretty steady until about August 2020, and when kids started coming back to school — either through distance learning or in-seat learning."
The Children's Division monthly management reports back up what Smith said.
For example, during April 2019, the division received 6,351 reports of abuse or neglect statewide. In 2020, it received just 2,917.
In Cole County, during April 2019, the division received 59 reports in 2019 and only 37 in 2020.
The Children's Division received almost 125,000 reports over the past fiscal year (ending in June 2020), according to the 2020 Child Abuse and Neglect Annual Report.
During the fiscal year, mandated reporters reported 71.7 percent of all Missouri cases. Permissive reporters — those that aren't required by law to report suspicions — reported 24.6 percent of cases.
As the end of another school year nears, state leaders want to remind people they can simply and confidentially report suspected child abuse or neglect.
Missourians should be especially attentive to the safety and well-being of children during the pandemic and the state strongly encourages anyone who suspects abuse or neglect to call its toll-free hotline at 1-800-392-3738, according to DSS.
The hotline is answered 24 hours a day, every day.
It is critical to continue to raise awareness about child abuse prevention and remind Missourians that children rely on adults to protect them, Gov. Mike Parson said in proclaiming April as Child Abuse Prevention Month on Thursday.
Any effort to let communities know about prevention opportunities is valuable, Smith said.
"In calendar year 2020, we took about 135,000 calls — a little over that, which is down for our normal number," Smith said. "You could tell that people were trying to wrap their arms around kids, however they knew to do so. It was an effort to get eyes on kids and make sure they were safe."
Despite a 50 percent drop in calls to the division, administrators were able to send 63,460 reports out to the field, she said.
Field investigators never missed a beat, she continued — responding to reports of abuse and neglect throughout the pandemic.
So, responses never wavered, she said, instead the division implemented an extra "referral condition" for several months. Where mandatory reporters were once just asked to report their suspicions about neglect or abuse, now they were to report other concerns over welfare.
"We're used to our mandated-reporting community calling things in, but when kids were isolated at home and not in school, this extra referral condition helped us be able to see kids in a different way — throughout the pandemic," Smith said.
When teachers had concerns that didn't meet statutory requirements to send out a report, they could make preventative services referrals — connecting the child's family with community resources, like food banks or assistance paying utility bills.
A library of DSS's annual child abuse and neglect reports may be found at dss.mo.gov/re/canar.htm.
Anyone can report suspected abuse or neglect.
DSS has provided a detailed page of frequently asked questions at dss.mo.gov/cd/keeping-kids-safe/can.htm.
When calling the hotline, it's helpful to have some specific information — the name of the child, name of the parent(s), name of the alleged abuser and where the child may be located. Callers will be asked to describe their concerns and to provide any information that may be helpful for an investigation.
It's OK if you're not certain there is abuse or neglect, officials said. Err on the side of over-reporting. If you think maybe you should call, you should.
Even if the Children's Division doesn't conduct an investigation because the report doesn't meet specific requirements, the division has other options, such as referrals to other agencies.
"Anytime there is a concern of abuse or neglect, it doesn't hurt to report," Smith said. "We'd rather take a more proactive response to keep kids safe."