by Dan Colton
for The Beacon
Reports of child abuse and neglect are down across the state, but Sheboygan County’s district attorney said the downward trend isn’t a positive sign.
Recorded reports of neglect and abuse in the state dropped more than 75 percent from April 2019 to April 2020, from 7,824 to 1,897, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. While that downward trend may look positive on the outside, District Attorney Joel Urmanski said he believes it’s caused by a lack of interaction between children and their educators at school.
Students in the area have been out of school since mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is no way to know for certain why the numbers are different, but I think it is fair to assume that the change in teacher and school interaction with students has altered their ability to see or learn about and then report concerns for child safety,” Urmanski wrote in an email.
Urmanski – a board member for the Child Advocacy Centers of Wisconsin – said school staff are “mandatory reporters” of child abuse and neglect, and they often build strong reports with their pupils.
Those relationships and frequent interactions provide safe avenues for children to speak about mistreatment they’ve been subjected to.
Mistreatment isn’t always obvious, and educators are trained to notice various signs.
“It might just be this child is always coming in and something is not right,” Urmanski said. “…The child is wearing the same clothing, the child is repeatedly sleeping in class, the child doesn’t have the right clothing on given the weather conditions.”
In Sheboygan County, Urmanski said his office has handled roughly half the number of child abuse and neglect cases as it did last year between March 1 and May 9. The DA’s office received 13 referrals for such cases during that timeframe in 2019, Urmanski said, and seven during 2020.
Statistics tracking the sources of child abuse and neglect reports illustrate the situation. Between March 5 and April 8, 2019, more than 25 percent of reports to child protective services originated from educational personnel, according to the Wisconsin DCF.
During March 12 to April 8, 2020, that number dropped to slightly more than 9 percent.
Urmanski said child abuse and neglect is a crime that crosses all sections of society, meaning no community is spared from the issue. But when society is forced to close and households are cut off from normal life – as in the case of the coronavirus “lockdown” – crimes like domestic and child abuse easily slip undetected.
“Child abuse and neglect can absolutely go across the spectrum,” Urmanski said. “It doesn’t matter who it is … These issues can exist everywhere and every place.”
With such reliance on school-based reporting, Urmanski said it is important to stay connected with students who’re in their second month without in-person classes. Phone calls and video chatting are especially important to stay connected to their friends, family and educators, he said.
“The more people are talking and interacting with others, the more likely … they’re willing to share … or have a friend that will recognize something is wrong,” Urmanski said.