With schools, day care centers and preschools around Mississippi shut down as part of statewide efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, online and hotline reports to the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services abuse and neglect intake center have dropped dramatically over the past weeks.
But child welfare experts and others do not believe this decline reflects a decrease in abuse or neglect. On the contrary, many fear that children are now at a greater risk of being hurt or neglected because families - many facing additional stress over work and health issues – are living in isolation from mandated reporters.
“With fewer eyes on these at-risk children, fewer concerns of abuse and neglect are being made to MDCPS which means we don’t know who needs the supports and services we can provide to the families struggling during this stressful time,” said Tonya Rogillio, MDCPS deputy commissioner for child welfare.
“It is the legal responsibility and moral obligation of every adult in Mississippi to report any concerns they have regarding child abuse, neglect or exploitation to MDCPS.”
The state’s lead child welfare agency, which receives roughly 25,000 abuse or neglect reports annually, typically sees a decline whenever schools are dismissed for summer vacation or extended holiday periods. When students return to classes, however, the number of reports immediately spike because teachers, school counselors and others like coaches or church group leaders identify concerning signs.
“We suspect that school closures and other important efforts at social distancing are driving the reduction in reports of abuse or neglect because fewer people outside children’s immediate families are seeing children on a daily basis,” said Taylor Cheeseman, interim MDCPS commissioner.
“We all share an obligation to be their advocates – to be on the alert for signs that a child may be in danger or that a family may need help.”
In Mississippi, every adult 18 and older is a legally mandated reporter. That means all adults are responsible for reporting concerns of child abuse or neglect to MDCPS.
Reports can be made online by going to www.mdcps.ms.gov and clicking on the Report Abuse link. There is also a mobile app available at no cost for all smart phones. The Mississippi Centralized Intake 24-hour hotline # is 1-800-222-8000. Given constraints associated with telework in the Agency’s response to COVID-19, MDCPS is asking that anyone who can report online rather than by phone.
Cheeseman also encouraged families who are struggling during the COVID-19 shutdown to contact MDCPS if they need additional services or supports.
“Our mission is to protect children and to support families. A call to MDCPS doesn’t necessarily mean we will come to take a child away. It means we will investigate what is needed to protect that child, and do whatever is in our power to strengthen and support that family’s ability to care for each other,” he said.