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Educators look for signs of child abuse among kids returning back to school

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SALT LAKE CITY – Child abuse prevention advocates are telling people not to be fooled by a drop in the number of reported child abuse cases during the pandemic.  They say abuse is just as common as ever, but many cases went unreported.  Now that kids are going back to school, teachers are trying to spot any signs of child abuse that may have happened while in quarantine.

The beginning of the school year has been relatively mellow for the Jordan School District. 

Canyons School District Social Work Specialist Wayne Trice says, “The kids were excited to be back.  The majority of students were wearing their masks appropriately.

As the students get settled back into school life, Trice says teachers and counselors are looking closely to see if a child is showing major changes in their behavior.

“[Teachers look for] if their behavior is over-the-top aggressive, intense or negative,” Trice says.  “Or, there’s the same on the opposite side of the spectrum with students who are excessively sad, anxious or depressed and withdrawing.”

Teachers get training on the warning signs of potential abuse or neglect every year, but the district has a relatively new tool that can help them sift through possible red flags.  They call it a universal screener, and this is the second year they’ve used it in elementary schools.  It lets teachers upload any potential problems they see into a program, which gives them guidance on what the problem might be.

“It’s a risk screener, and teachers, three times a year, enter information into our dashboard and it gives us a sense of externalizing and internalizing symptoms of students,” Trice says.

Trice says this is just a guide, they would never make a decision to call DCFS simply based on a computer program. 

Child abuse prevention advocates say the number of reported cases of child abuse and neglect went down during the school shutdown, but they have no reason to believe that’s due to a drop in actual abuse.

“Rates of domestic violence have gone up during the pandemic, and, generally speaking, rates of child abuse and neglect do follow the trend lines of domestic violence,” says. Prevent Child Abuse Utah Executive Director Laurieann Thorpe.

Last year, teachers made up the largest group of people reporting abuse to the authorities, but during the pandemic, that safety net was taken away.  Thorpe says it appears that reports have increased to normal levels since the school year began a few weeks ago.

She says now is the time for extended family, like grandparents and aunts and uncles to check on the family to see how they’re handling the stressors of the pandemic.  Plus, there are some not so obvious things to look for.

Thorpe says, “It’s always a good idea to ask, if the family has a pet, how the pet is doing and can you see the pet.  Sometimes, there is a correlation between animal abuse and child abuse.

She also says if a parent catches themselves doing something they swore they would never do, that’s when they should reach out for help.