Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday joined Department of Children's Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols to call on all Tennesseans to pay extra attention to the children in their lives and in their communities as the response to stop the spread of COVID-19 could lead to an increase in child abuse and neglect and a decrease in reported allegations, according to a state news release.
"Another collateral side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is domestic abuse, particularly child abuse, in our state. As schools and many childcare centers are closed and children are outside of the structured environment they are normally in, I want to remind everyone that each of us is a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse. I encourage all Tennesseans to be vigilant, to be engaged, to be certain that during this time of crisis we don't add additional damage and that children are safe and protected," Gov. Lee said.
Many families are using this time of social distancing together by completing school or educational projects, playing games, watching movies, taking walks outdoors, and enjoying other activities. But higher levels of stress due to self-isolation, combined with many adults suddenly working from home or facing unemployment, could potentially lead to an increase in the number of children being physically or sexually abused or neglected.
"This is a real concern. We normally receive many reports of child abuse and neglect from teachers, childcare workers, and medical professionals – all people who see children on a regular basis. With families staying home to due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and schools and childcare centers closed, there are fewer eyes on this vulnerable population," Commissioner Nichols said.
The number of calls handled by the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline decreased nearly 19 percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019, falling from 9,934 one year ago to 8,070 this past month.
"It is more important than ever to increase awareness that all Tennesseans are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect. During this unprecedented time, everyone is not necessarily safer at home," Nichols urged.
Wednesday's announcement falls on the first day of National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Under Tennessee law, it is every citizen's responsibility to report known or suspected abuse or neglect. DCS encourages neighbors, friends, family and even parents to be vigilant and call the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline (1-877-237-0004) to make reports. Citizens can also report child abuse online at https://apps.tn.gov/carat/ or on the MyTN app.
The Child Abuse Hotline has continued to operate during this crisis. DCS hotline staff continue to follow the same protocols to ensure all reports of child abuse and neglect are screened and investigated. Child Protective Services investigators are still going out to make face-to-face visits on all initial referrals of child abuse and neglect, following CDC guidelines.