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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
According to the Rape, Assault & Incest National Network (RAINN), child abuse reports have decreased during the COVID 19 shutdown. Though this sounds like good news, many experts believe it is misleading and that more children are actually being harmed.
RAINN President Scott Berkowitz attributes the decrease in reports to the fact that abused kids are quarantined at home with their perpetrators, who are usually family members, and are cut off from their safety net―the teachers, School Resources Officers (SROs), coaches, and neighbors who are most likely to notice and report suspected abuse.
In Texas, Renette B. Todd, a criminal investigator with the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office, has noticed an increase in domestic violence calls and a simultaneous decline in child abuse reports. Realizing that these crimes often go hand in hand, her department automatically investigates for abuse if there is a child in the house.
Many departments are taking similar precautions, while others have found new ways to detect problems and protect students during the COVID 19 shutdown, methods which can be replicated during the summer school vacation, holidays, natural disasters, and other events that result in school closure.
In California, the Redlands Police Department (RPD) has expanded its relationship with local schools through its School Resource Officers who have maintained contact during the shutdown by assisting in the delivery of Chromebook laptops to families whose children do not have computers that are necessary for distance learning programs.
In the process, they actively engaged with both students and parents to determine how they are coping and uncover any issues that deserve a response. If there appears to be serious problems, SROs make home welfare checks.
Says former RPD Police Chief Rod Torres, who is now Safety Manager for the Redlands Unified School District (RUSD), “Our SROs are more proactive now that students aren’t on campus and incidents can’t be mitigated by school staff.”
In the Bradenton (Florida) Police Department (BPD), SROs maintain contact by helping with the distribution of free lunches to children who attend schools the officers are normally assigned to. While doing so, they make a point of asking how the children are doing and letting them know they are available if the kids need help.
Some of the SROs also connected with students at the free Wi-Fi hotspots set up for those who lack Internet access to online learning platforms, and drove the buses that contained mobile hotspots.
Said Paul McWade, Assistant Chief of Police in the BPD’s Operations Division, “Our SROs know their kids very well. They know which have been victims of abuse, sexual assault or mental health issues in the past, and reach out to them by phone or home visit to be sure there are no concerns.”
The BPD also employed monitors to view student interactions with teachers in their virtual classrooms. When reports of suspected abuse are made, SROs follow up. If it is determined that a child has actually suffered from any kind of trauma, the officer sends a Handle with Care report to a school official and the Watch Commander on duty.
Teachers often spot trouble themselves by looking for signs of distress, such as students who refuse to show themselves on camera, always look unhappy, or withdraw from participation. In the RUSD, they have additional help from Gaggle, an online safety platform hired by the district to monitor the use of the school-distributed Chromebooks.
Though Gaggle mostly looks for indications of problems such as bullying in documents, emails, and web sites on student laptops, their monitors also catch problematic messages on cell phones charging on the Chromebooks’ USB ports.
When there are suspicions of abuse or other concerns, Gaggle sends an alert to the safety team managed by Torres, which passes it on to a school guidance counselor who will make a phone call and, if necessary, contact the RPD.
An example of how Gaggle operates is the 2019 case of a predator who attempted to send pornography to a sixth grader in another school. The monitors intercepted the file and sent it to the local police department, which arrested an adult who was preying on other children as well.
But even when teachers, counselors, or SROs engage with children in person or on the phone, they may not get much information if the abuser is nearby. In Colorado, young people can safely call in problems through an online app or by texting to Safe2Tell, an anonymous tip line funded by the Colorado Department of Law for the state’s public schools.
Created as a threat assessment process for both prevention and intervention by former SRO Susan Payne shortly after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Safe2Tell provides a protected and easily accessed method for kids to share information about their safety or the safety of others with teachers and law enforcement.
Safe2Tell relies on key relationships with local law enforcement agencies, School Resource Officers and emergency responders to respond to critical, life-saving tips. Through education and training, it shows administrators, teachers and SROs how to recognize the early indicators of violence, self-harm and other problems, assess the root causes, and develop strategies for intervention.
Effective, timely response is enabled by the creation of a multi-disciplinary approach based on collaboration among school staff, SROs, local law enforcement, and first responders, as well as by a systematic framework for accountability and follow-up.
But most important to the program’s success is the students’ trust and a positive working relationship among team members. “Enabling children to speak up empowers them and allows them to become part of the solution,” Payne says. “Together, we can provide more hope, help, and safety.”
Noting that the most frequent calls to Safe2Tell have been related to potential suicides, she adds that it can also be very effective in addressing child abuse in the home. “We must work together to provide support for dealing with social stressors to prevent problems as well as a safe way for young people or others in the community to report them.”
Travis Martinez, the RPD’s Deputy Chief of Police, agrees with this approach. “The most effective way to protect our children is through partnerships between schools and local law enforcement. By enhancing and reinforcing these relationships, we can proactively address child abuse, mental health crises, and other problems.”
But all agree that relationships with the children themselves, starting at an early age, are key to the solution. They need to know that the officers are on their side. To that end, the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office has been building positive relations with quarantined children through drive-by birthday greetings.
With lights blazing and sirens blaring, the deputies lead a parade of honking vehicles past the birthday child’s home. Says Detective Todd, “We love it, the families it, the kids love it. And it creates a good memory that will last a long time.”
Faye C. Elkins
Sr. Technical Writer
For more information, please see:
Child Abuse and Neglect in the Home
Combating Child Sex Trafficking: A Guide for Law Enforcement Leaders
Bullying in Schools
Using School COP: A Guide for School Administrators and Safety Personnel
Law Enforcement Response to Child Abuse: Portable Guide to Investigating Child Abuse
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