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Bay Area Counties Report Steep Drop in Calls to Child Abuse Hotlines During Pandemic

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Calls to child abuse hotlines, which are often made made by school officials, plummeted in April. (Anna Stills/iStock)

Bay Area counties are reporting a steep drop in calls to their child abuse hotlines since stay-at-home orders took effect, a trend concerning to child welfare advocates who fear many instances of abuse are currently going unreported.

San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Marin counties have all reported a 50% to 60% drop in calls and referrals in April compared to last year, according to county records.

"We know that child abuse and neglect continue to occur," said Bree Marchman, director of Marin County Health and Human Services Child Welfare Division. "The fact that our referral numbers are so low suggests that we just aren't hearing about the issues happening."

Social service agencies are usually alerted to potential child abuse instances through mandated reporters, like teachers, who are required under state law to call if they have reason to believe a child is being abused. But that's far less likely to happen with kids out of school and families forced to shelter in place due to the coronavirus, Marchman said. She noted that abuse and neglect are more likely to occur during times of crisis.


"So the fact that we’re hearing fewer calls coming in really says to us people aren’t seeing what’s happening," Marchman said. "That makes sense because school teachers, school personnel are the most common reporters to our hotline and now that schools are not in session, they don’t have those natural opportunities to hear from kids that some things aren't going right at home.”

Prevention and Support

The best way to stop abuse is to get help before things get worse, said Kristin Mateer, executive director of East Bay Children’s Law Offices. Most outreach programs and family resource centers have temporarily moved online and are checking in with families via phone, email and video conference, she said.

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"Parents can call when they’re overwhelmed or stressed out. There are people trained to make referrals to all sorts of services," Mateer said. "The really important part is to get people the help they need before a child would become our client.

Children who are victims of abuse or neglect often suffer from declining mental health, Mateer said, especially when they can’t access in-person resources and support.

“One of the issues that falls under abuse and neglect are children with mental issues whose parents can’t meet their needs and aren’t getting them the help they need,” Mateer said.

Bay Area Social Service Hotlines

Safe and Sound: A child abuse prevention program providing 24-hour support to parents and families: 415-441-5437.

Family Paths: A stress helpline for parents in need of support: 1-800-829-3777.

Crisis Support Services of Alameda County: To support children suffering from mental health issues and who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts: 1-800-309-2131. There is also a national hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

STAND! For Families Free of Violence: A 24-hour, toll-free crisis line: 1-888-215-5555.

First 5 San Francisco Family Resource Centers: A network of 26 sites around San Francisco that offer parental support, information and referrals. Many services can currently be access online or by phone, and some sites are offering food and diaper security during the pandemic.

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