When Hamilton County Schools shut down in March of 2020 to pivot to online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, Patricia Russell said that she saw reports of suspected child abuse begin to drop, just as she had feared.
For Russell, the district's director of social emotional learning and K-12 school counseling, low numbers reflected high instances of missed signs of child abuse.
"Did we have concerns around our students' safety? Of course," she said. "Most people would think, 'Oh well, these numbers are reporting [that child abuse] went down,' but that was due to a lot of our teachers that see them Monday through Friday, seven and a half hours a day — they were not able to [see them in person]."
The concern about abuse during the pandemic wasn't limited to children.
Similarly, area abuse agencies feared that isolation, economic uncertainty and fear of illness might keep adults and children alike stuck at home with their abusers, feeling as if there was no way out.
"I can imagine that, absolutely, it has been incredibly physically, emotionally and mentally taxing for those that have experienced both traumas — trauma of a crime, and trauma of a pandemic," said Caroline Huffaker, victim services and chaplains director for the Chattanooga Police Department.
While the number of requests for services has varied at times during the pandemic, area agencies available to victims of abuse have largely remained open to residents over the past year. And as nationwide COVID-19 cases continue to dwindle, providers hope that those who experienced abuse will get the help that they need.
Some area abuse statistics have remained the same, while others have seen some changes. But the data often doesn't paint a conclusive picture of domestic and child abuse, especially when factoring in the complexities of the pandemic.
According to data obtained through the Tennessee Department of Children Services, the number of children identified as potential abuse victims in Hamilton County dropped by about 300 cases, while the number of substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect dropped by about 40 when comparing 2019 to 2020.
In the months of January to April, substantiated abuse reports were about 50% lower in 2020 and 2021, compared to 2018 and 2019. The Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County also saw a 7-8% drop in children seen across all of their services last year.
But while these data points show fewer reports for children, when it comes to domestic violence in the area, there seem to be different trends, according to numbers from the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
The CPD responded to 428 calls for domestic violence reports from January through April of 2020 and 453 in that same time period in 2021. Those numbers were 391 in 2018 and 402 in 2019. And while calls were higher, the number of domestic violence homicides appeared to drop, with only one reported in Chattanooga in 2020, compared to six in 2019 and four in 2018.
"I think while we've seen a reduction in requests for services over that period of time, the opposite is true when it comes to incidents arising because, you know, when people are out of work, income is uncertain," said Regina McDevitt, executive director of the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Family Justice Center. "They have high stress levels. They're suddenly tasked with balancing work, their child care, taking care of their children's education, and it leads to a rise in child abuse and domestic violence."
Children’s Advocacy Center of Hamilton County Statistics
> 600-800 children provided with services annually
> About half of services are used by Chattanooga residents
> Provide services for those from birth to age 18
> 40% of medical services are for those ages 0-5
> Most are elementary school kids
> Racial demographics fall along Census lines for area
> 60% female, 40% male
Teachers and counselors are often the first line of defense in recognizing the early signs of possible child abuse and neglect. School officials are the number one reporters of child abuse across the county, according to Kristen McCallie, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center.
After schools first went virtual last year, calls to the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline dropped almost 19% in March of 2020 compared to 2019 across the state.
So out of concern, Hamilton County Schools partnered with the local Children's Advocacy Center to offer training to teachers on how to spot signs of abuse through a computer screen. McCallie said that some students even began to disclose abuse over chat sessions in Zoom.
"I think what's been interesting about transitioning to this, the Zoom world, is it's almost like you get a deeper picture into what kind of home a kid might be in," she said. "Behavior change is the biggest thing we tell teachers that they have a window to. That they have relationships with these kids that are ongoing and sometimes, you know, some of the most healthy and stable relationships kids have are with their school teachers."
It also helped, Russell said, that the district was able to remain mostly in person for 90% of the 2020-2021 school year, although there were still families that opted to keep children at home for the entire instructional year.
Unlike students in face-to-face school, many adults facing abuse may have remained behind closed doors between working from home, shelter in place protocols and quarantines over the past year.
Emily Averitt, program manager for crisis services at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, said that anecdotally, people were likely away from normal resources and lifelines.
"Especially during those periods of quarantine, somebody [might be] stuck at home with their abuser, and it's not safe for them to reach out," she said. "It's also things like folks didn't have as much exposure to other concerned people in their lives such as friends or family who may have noticed something going on, who may have encouraged them to seek help, or even other services like going to the doctor's office."
How to report abuse
TO REPORT SUSPECTED CHILD ABUSE
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call Tennessee’s child abuse hotline at 877-237-0004 or online at apps.tn.gov/carat. Reports can be anonymous. If a child is in imminent danger, call 911.
Source: Tennessee Department of Children’s Services
TO REPORT CHILD DIGITAL EXPLOITATION
Visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tip Line at MissingKids.org/cybertipline to file a report or call 1-800-THE-LOST. If the child is in imminent danger, call 911.
Do not delete any pictures or messages, as law enforcement will need to collect that as evidence. Do not further communicate with the individual.
Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
Over the past year, the main goal of local victim advocacy organizations was to continue offering services to those in need, which meant adapting to the specific concerns of the pandemic.
Resources like the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County District Attorney General's victim services units provide guidance and support for victims of crimes like domestic abuse, particularly through the legal process when charges are pressed against abusers. Although the pandemic has slowed down some cases, Chief Victim/Witness Coordinator for DA's office Sherri Bradford hopes that the court system will be back to some sense of normal soon.
Abuse hotlines and local law enforcement can connect people to advocacy agencies like the Children's Advocacy Center and the Family Justice Center. The Partnership FCA maintains a 24/7 Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline at 423-755-2700.
How to get help and more information
24/7 Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline: 423-755-2700
Children’s Advocacy Center
Chattanooga Police Department Victim Services
423-643-5000 for general information
Hamilton County-Chattanooga Family Justice Center
Hamilton County DA’s Victim Services
Seeking the future
As cases of COVID-19 continue to dwindle and people regain access to resources, area agencies anticipate different trends coming in the future.
McCallie expects that in the future they will see "delayed disclosure," as kids wait until they are older or feel more comfortable reporting their abuse. McDevitt is also worried about the long-term effects any prolonged abuse during the last year may have on individuals.
"There's really some significant long-term impacts that we really have not even begun to tap the surface on because we're still in the middle of the pandemic, but we know as we move forward that we will see great impacts from the isolation and the lack of access that people have experienced," she said.
Whatever the future holds, advocates just want victims of abuse to know that help is and will continue to be available.
"We haven't gone anywhere," Bradford said. "We're here. Don't be afraid to reach out, whether it be you call the hotline, the Partnership, you reach out to the Family Justice Center, or you call the District Attorney's Office. We'll get you in the right direction."
Contact Tierra Hayes at email@example.com.