CORONAVIRUS

Iowa Ombudsman calls for vigilance against child abuse, neglect

Social distancing separates children from mandatory reporters, official says

Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, during a news conference on Sunday, March 22, asked Iow
Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, during a news conference on Sunday, March 22, asked Iowans to be on the lookout for possible incidents of abuse and neglect of children that otherwise may go unreported as families stay in their homes under isolation. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

The Iowa State Ombudsman pointed to the sharp decline in child abuse reporting over the past month to urge the public to stay vigilante for children in need.

As social-distancing measures in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic prompt schools to close, Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman stated in a news release Wednesday, child abuse allegations made to the Iowa Department of Human Services have “fallen sharply.”

According to the statement, child abuse reports to DHS fell from 5,033 in February to 4,209 in March — or about 16 percent.

Allegations made in March of this year also are below those made in March 2019, when 4,813 reports were released.

The Ombudsman’s Office pointed out that most schools in Iowa closed in mid-March, thus creating an “abrupt break in relations between students and mandatory reporters such as teachers, school nurses and day care workers.”

“In other words, it is unlikely that physical and psychological mistreatment of children is disappearing; instead, it is believed that some child abuse is simply going unnoticed,” the release said. “Advocates fear that social distancing, recommended by communicable disease experts for legitimate health reasons, could make detection of child abuse even more difficult.”

DHS Director Kelly Garcia issued a similar call during the governor’s daily COVID-19 news conference this past week, asking Iowans to be on the lookout for possible abuse and neglect incidents that may otherwise go unreported as families stay in their homes under isolation.

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Pointing to anecdotal cases of abuse and neglect nationally — sometimes in situations where a child may be sheltered with an abuser — Garcia said neighbors, family members and faith-based groups should step in or contact authorities “if you hear something or see something.”

“We know that Iowans are going to need us now more than ever — many for the first time,” Garcia said.

DHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding the Ombudsman’s statement.

“Please do not let social distancing be an excuse to engage in social isolation,” Hirschman urged. “Each and every one of us needs to be vigilant and supportive of our neighbors, friends and families. We owe that to Iowa’s children.”

Iowa’s should call the state’s hotline at 800-362-2178 to report abuse or neglect incidents. Garcia also encouraged schools to make routine “comfort calls” to children no longer attending classes.

Gazette Des Moines bureau reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this article.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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