ST. GEORGE — Representing more than 1,800 children who died as a result of child abuse nationwide in 2019, a vast array of pinwheels have been placed along the front lawns of Primary Children’s Hospital – a solemn tribute to the young lives lost as April ushers in National Child Abuse Awareness month.
Primary Children’s caregivers have arranged 1,809 blue and silver pinwheels on the hospital’s lawn as part of the “Pinwheels for Child Abuse Prevention” project, each representing a child who died as a result of child abuse in 2019, the most recent data available. The 2020 data will not be released for several more months, Dr. Antoinette Laskey of the University of Utah Health and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital said during a video conference released Monday.
The number of children killed each year continues to rise, evidenced by the 3% increase in 2019 of children killed as the result of child abuse compared to the previous year, a trend that has experts concerned that an even a greater number of children may have experienced abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, more than 10,500 children were victims of child abuse in Utah; Nationwide, child protective service agencies received 4.4 million child abuse referrals for nearly 7.9 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Calling it the “hidden pandemic,” Laskey said that while it is unclear to what degree the pandemic contributed to the number of children abused across the state, one thing is clear – now more than ever – everyone must play an active role to protect this very vulnerable sector of society.
Case rates remain stable during any given year, but in 2020 “the floor dropped out” she said, and there were no cases being reported to pediatricians or to hospital staff.
“That has never happened before,” she said, adding that it was a frightening phenomena that took place when the stay-at-home orders were implemented and the safety net – primarily the schools, churches and sporting activities – was no longer there. “The schools truly are the safety nets for these children who are being abused.”
Laskey said now that schools are back in session, the number of child abuse cases are returning to previous rates.
Rates, she said, that are alarming, especially when child abuse is preventable.
According to a child abuse and neglect report released in December, mounting unemployment rates, nationwide school closures and stay-at-home orders that followed in the wake of the pandemic “abruptly and significantly upheaved the daily lives of young children and families across the globe.”
In particular, the disruption and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic presented significant risk for increased family violence, including child abuse. The study also found that the number of cases dropped during that same time period, citing that families were sheltering in place, which reduced contact with “mandated reporters.”
“Children rely on the adults in their lives to keep them safe,” she said, “and it is often someone outside of the home that the child trusts to open up to, since abuse often takes place inside of the home.”
In Utah, everyone is a mandatory reporter of child abuse, Laskey said, which makes everyone responsible for reporting any suspected child abuse – regardless of the type of abuse. In fact, in 1999 Utah passed the “Duty to Report” law that requires all Utah citizens age 18 or older to report any suspected child abuse or neglect. All reports are confidential and potentially lifesaving.
As fewer cases of child abuse were being reported during the pandemic, Laskey said that domestic violence numbers rose to unprecedented levels. Children are often harmed as “crossfire victims” during violent incidents in the home that place them at a substantial risk of being injured themselves.
Sadly, abuse, neglect and domestic violence can expose children to extreme and sustained stress that can undermine development and result in life-long effects.
Laskey said in some cases, individuals hesitate to report child abuse out of fear they may have misunderstood the situation or will report a situation in error.
To anyone afraid to call and report suspected abuse, Laskey said that a report often serves as a screening test or a way for a childcare worker to assess a situation and determine if abuse is taking place.
Reporting child abuse can also open doors to a multitude of resources that would otherwise be unavailable, many of which can be arranged through the Children’s Justice Center.
There are some instances where an individual can help a parent who has become very frustrated with their child by providing a kind word or a sense of understanding, which can help that parent more than anything else.
Child abuse referrals include physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect and sex trafficking. For more information, contact Prevent Child Abuse Utah. To report any suspected abuse, call the Utah Child Abuse Reporting Hotline at 855-323-3237.
Pinwheels for Prevention Program
In 2008, Prevent Child Abuse America introduced the pinwheel as the new national symbol for child abuse prevention through “Pinwheels for Prevention”, since the pinwheel, by its very nature, represents the carefree and innocent childhood that every child deserves.
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