Calls to the child abuse hotline in Montana dipped during the first two months of the pandemic, just as state officials and child advocates had feared.
From March 16 to May 20, calls reporting suspected child abuse or neglect dropped by 27% from the same period in 2019, according to data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Teachers and staff are mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, and they’re a major source of calls into the hotline, the department said in a news release on April 6. School closures began March 16.
“Now is when we really need the entire community, no matter if one is a mandatory reporter or not, to really watch out for our kids,” said department Director Sheila Hogan.
The department launched a campaign to promote the hotline through radio, television and newspapers after its weekly calls began to dip.
In the months since, it’s seen the average weekly calls rise to a level more on par with summertime activity, when kids are out of school.
Department spokesman Jon Ebelt said the department has not seen any shortage of emergency placement options across the state in recent weeks.
"We have dedicated foster families, and they have found ways to persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic, just as many Montanans have done," Ebelt wrote.
Community Medical Center in Missoula put out a press release in March warning about the effects the statewide stay-at-home order could have on child safety.
"This has led to families, who are already burdened by anxiety or unemployment, having to spend every hour, every day of the week together," the release said. "Well-known risk factors for child abuse are social isolation, parenting stress and family stress — which most likely will describe the environment of many homes where the 'stay at home' order is being applied."
Of the 4,828 hotline calls seen between March 16 and May 20, 32% required an investigation, according to spokesman Jon Ebelt. Most calls don’t meet the legal definition for child abuse and neglect.
Emergency removals by the department are down significantly, but Ebelt said that was due not only to decreased tip line activity but also to newer department initiatives aimed at keeping kids in the home whenever possible.
Those include using more in-home safety plans, more prevention education and a new program for pregnancy and early childhood that involves increased home visits and resources that extend even after a Child and Family Services Division case is closed.
The state had 3,528 children in foster care as of Tuesday, which is the lowest it’s been since 2016.