Giving Thought: Is child abuse down, or do the numbers tell the whole story?

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

In the second quarter of 2020, reports to the state’s hotline for child abuse and neglect dropped sharply in our region.

In Pitkin County, calls to the hotline (844-CO-4-KIDS) fell by 37% from the first quarter (January to March) to the second (April to June). The number of cases opened for assessment dropped by a whopping 77% between April-June 2019 and April-June 2020.

In the entire 9th Judicial District, which includes Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, the number of calls dropped by 27% between the first and second quarters of 2020.

These disparities might look like good news — fewer reports of abuse/neglect mean fewer actual cases, right? — but authorities suggest there is more to this picture than meets the eye.

First, the calls always tend to drop in the summer because children are no longer in school. Teachers are the most common reporters of abuse and neglect because they interact with children five days per week for nine months of the year. (Teachers and other professionals including doctors, dentists, counselors, therapists, firefighters, clergy members and more, are all “mandatory reporters” who are legally obligated to report suspected abuse to the Colorado Department of Human Services, or CDHS.)

So, reports typically drop whenever kids aren’t physically in school, including this spring. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, now five-plus months old, families across the 9th Judicial District have experienced all kinds of virus-driven anxiety and stress, which would logically equate to an uptick in domestic conflict. Between lost jobs, lost health insurance, financial struggles, lack of child care, and all the other ways that families have been knocked off balance, there are almost certainly cases of neglect and/or abuse that deserve a response.

“We’re worried because we know things are stressful now, and lots of parents don’t know what’s happening with their job or their insurance,” said Christy Doyon, executive director of CASA of the Ninth. “We know the abuse isn’t stopping.”

CASA of the Ninth trains and supports court-appointed special advocates (CASAs) who represent abused and neglected children and try to steer them to safe and permanent homes. Doyon and her team fear that abuse could be worse than normal across the district, but it is occurring out of sight because families are, for the most part, sheltering in place.

“Everyone wants to be a good parent and provide for their child,” Doyon continued. “But they may not always have the coping skills they need. There could be mental health problems or substance abuse problems. Sometimes they don’t have the supports they need, there’s no family nearby.”

In most cases that merit CDHS intervention, families end up receiving some kind of help — counseling, therapy, job-finding, assistance with housing or food, for example — in order to stabilize the situation at home. In rare and extreme cases, children are removed from the home. But the message from CASA of the Ninth during these unstable and unsettling times is “(If you) see something, say something.”

In other words, Doyon said, “let’s keep our children safe. Don’t look the other way. Be safe rather than sorry.”

The professionals at CASA are asking all members of the public to be as vigilant as possible, and to call the hotline if they fear for a child’s safety. “Anecdotally, our CASAs are hearing that the calls that do come in are from physicians, and the severity (of abuse) is worse. Now a child might be injured and the parents had to take him to the doctor.”

Another way to tackle the problem is to reach out to neighbors and community members who might be struggling. An offer to babysit, or even just to talk, might end up reducing or preventing child abuse or neglect. Visit for “50-plus ways to strengthen families” and to learn more about the obligations of mandatory reporters.

If you’re interested in the important work that CASAs do, visit Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline 844-CO-4-Kids; designed to provide one number for individuals to use statewide to report suspected child abuse and neglect.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.


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