PITTSBURG — While it can be difficult to measure accurately, the risk of abuse and neglect across the United States could be increasing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

This could be the case particularly for children, according to experts in a recent report, as “coronavirus-related school closures keep them at home and away from the nation’s biggest group of hotline tipsters: educators.”

One in every five child mistreatment claims in the nation comes from educators, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other major sources include law enforcement and social workers.

According to the National Children’s Alliance, abuse most frequently happens at home.

“It is a sad fact that the vast majority of abuse already happens in the home,” a release from the Children’s Advocacy Center said.

According to the latest national data, 81% of perpetrators are either a parent or an unmarried partner of a parent, the release from the CAC said, adding that 77.5% of abusers are parents, 3.5% are partners of parents. Additionally, 87% of cases happen within the family.

“Our own statistics collected at Children's Advocacy Centers (CACs) around the country show that in a given year, about 20-25% of cases are when kids harm other kids,” CAC said in the release. “In many cases, that's a sibling.”

Although online education settings provide only a glimpse into the lives of students, it may be heavily monitored by abusers and teachers may miss telltale signs of abuse, the CAC said.

“Just like when kids come back from summer vacation, a time when teachers get a wave of abuse disclosures from returning students, we expect that the reopening of schools after lockdown orders have been lifted will see a large uptick in reports from teachers,” the release said.

Area school districts said their teachers are mandatory reporters of child abuse and that duty continues even though they are not at the schools. Schools are connecting with students through a video chat website/application called Zoom, through email and by phone.

"While this pandemic has changed how we interact with our students, their safety and well being remain our number one priority,” Richard Proffitt, Pittsburg Community Schools superintendent said. “Our staff continues to work with students to meet their needs and are all mandated reporters. If a teacher sees a need or has a concern for their safety they express that to their administration and counseling staff, they then follow the appropriate protocol. We have an incredible team that works together to care for our students, this same care has continued."

Teachers, counselors and staff reach out daily to ensure that they are making contact with students and their families.

“In cases where we are not able to reach them or have a concern about the student, our resource officers in the district, as well as our Communities in Schools partners, are assisting with making those contacts,” Melinda DeGruson, Lakeside Elementary School Counselor said. “Keeping our students safe is a number one priority for us. Human connection is important, no matter how you reach out."

Since schools closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Children’s Advocacy Center’s cases have gone down, which Executive Director Whitney Lovell said is most likely because “there’s probably no one to report it.” Lovell said children currently have hardly anyone to reach out to; reaching out to neighbors could even be difficult.

Perhaps with school now back in session, at least virtually, students may reach out to their teacher if the offender is not near, Lovell said.

Staying at home and assisting with educating their children could become exponentially more difficult for some parents who may be laid off, don’t have a good support system, or who are dealing with depression or other issues such as alcoholism which could lead to abuse, Lovell said.

Children are not the only ones potentially at higher risk of abuse during the pandemic. Overall, reports of domestic abuse cases have not increased thus far in Crawford County, but it is a concern, Crawford County Sheriff Danny Smith said.

“We haven’t seen an upswing in that, again I’m hoping that’s going to stay that way, but you just never know,” he said. “There’s a lot of challenges, you think about people staying at home, either already had issues before that then being stuck at home, that’s definitely going to make things worse.”

Mental illness is also a concern, Smith said. He said he encourages people to reach out if they need help and try to get fresh air and find some hobbies to keep the mind busy.

“You kind of worry about people with mental illness and how they are holding up,” he said.

“A lot of times they have anxiety issues during the regular times and so right now with a pandemic going on I would imagine that’s causing some real issues for people and that’s definitely another concern, that we could start seeing some suicides.”

Helpful information:

Crawford County Mental Health is currently using telehealth to reach their patients. People can schedule appointments by calling 620-231-5130 for Adult Services and 620-232-3228 for Children’s Services. The CCMH Crisis Services 24-hour crisis line is 620-232-SAVE (7283).

Rebecca Brubaker, Safehouse Crisis Center executive director, said the crisis center services are still available for victims. The Safehouse Crisis Center hotline is 800-794-9148.

Crawford County Sheriff Danny Smith said to call 911 for emergencies.