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Arizona likely experiencing an 'uptick' in serious child abuse cases, experts say
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Arizona likely experiencing an 'uptick' in serious child abuse cases, experts say

Amy Brandhuber, program supervisor for CASA of Pima County, hosts an online meeting with volunteers and staffers in her office at the Pima County Juvenile Court Center.

Calls to Arizona’s child abuse hotline have dropped significantly since the pandemic started, while the number of children being removed from their homes has remained consistent, data show.

An average of 750 Arizona children have entered foster care each month since March, even while abuse and neglect reports dropped as much as 35% from mid-March to the end of May this year compared with the same period in 2019. The summer months are typically slower for the hotline because school is not in session, a pattern disrupted by the pandemic that closed schools across the state in March.

What the consistent rate of home removals likely means is that while fewer cases are being brought to the attention of the state’s Department of Child Safety, the cases being reported are more serious.

“Three or four months is not long enough to measure a trend, but anecdotally, there has been an uptick,” said Mike Faust, director of the DCS. “We have to reach conclusions with that at some point, that the ones that are more egregious are the ones that are coming to our attention.”

One major contributing factor seems to be more severe cases of domestic violence overall, Faust said. The long-term impact of the pandemic on families and children is difficult to grasp, he said, and heartbreaking to consider.

“Even the best of parents are taxed, and imagine if you are in a home that was already struggling,” Faust said.

The drop in calls is “almost entirely attributable to fewer adults being around children,” said Claire Louge, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, with far fewer children being seen by teachers, doctors, neighbors and coaches.

During typical times, about 1,000 reports of possible child abuse or neglect are made a week statewide.

“Normally, during the first week of school, there’s a moderate uptick and then, by the third week, we see the volume increase more significantly,” Faust said, explaining that call volume increases about 15% to 18% when schools are in session.

“We typically get an average of about 200 reports from educators a week, but this week, with some schools reopening, we’ve had just seven or eight.”

“Definitely can’t catch everything”

Keeping up with students virtually is challenging for teachers, as well as court-appointed special advocates or social workers.

Lucia Zeffirelli, a special education teacher at Mansfeld Middle Magnet School, 1300 E. Sixth St., said a couple of her students have not shown up at all yet during the first week of school that just passed, and she can’t reach their families.

“All of my kids and families have my personal cell number so I have a pretty good idea what’s going on at home,” she said. “The ones that avoid me are the ones I worry about.”

Zeffirelli has made calls to the DCS about students she was worried about in the past and said one child was eventually removed from his home after multiple calls.

Overall, she tries to communicate regularly with the families and gauge how they are doing and what they need.

Sheree Garcia, a longtime teacher now at Wright Elementary School, 4311 E. Linden St., said she has the same approach and she’s working hard to stay connected with her students and their families in spite of the pandemic.

Garcia, who is in her fifth year teaching English-language development at Wright and in her 38th year of teaching, said she is close to her families and lets parents call or text her freely.

If a child looks tired or upset, or doesn’t show at all, she reaches out to the parents quickly and asks if things are OK.

During normal school years, she said, she spends the first part of her class time connecting with her students and watching to see if they are overtired, hungry or not being bathed.

“Right now, I cannot give them food and I cannot give them hugs and I cannot take them off to a corner and let them cry,” she said. “Obviously it’s different, but we still have to work at it. You definitely can’t catch everything being online.”

“People see the need”

Volunteers with a Pima County program set up to advocate for the best interests of children have been working hard to keep connected with the kids they are helping, said Amy Brandhuber, supervisor of the CASA program. But it’s not always easy.

“Our CASAs have gotten incredibly creative about how they connect with kids,” said Brandhuber, a supervisor for the program for three years. “I’ve been amazed at the ideas that they come up with.”

There are about 200 CASA volunteers in Pima County right now. There are more than 2,000 children who need one.

These volunteers, who are appointed by a judge to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children involved in court proceedings, typically spend time together so the child learns to trust the volunteer and the volunteer can better gauge how the child is doing.

But with the pandemic, typical outings and visits are now often reduced to what they can do online: read books, share a Zoom baking or cooking session; or do a simple science experiment.

Bonnie Lawrie-Higgins has been a CASA volunteer for 14 years, ever since she retired from teaching.

“I was looking for something to do and I had sworn I was never ever going to work with children and their parents again because I was an educator,” she said, laughing. “Since then, I’ve been working with lots of parents and lots of children, lots of wonderful, wonderful children.”

Lawrie-Higgins said it’s been easier to connect with the children she knew before the pandemic hit, and quite challenging with the children who are new to her. She says she remains persistent and keeps working to make strong connections.

“They did nothing to get in the situation they are in and sometimes they feel very guilty about the situation that they are in,” she said. “Many of them do not feel safe and have never felt safe.”

The court time can be especially challenging, she said, because it’s held virtually and there’s no in-person interaction.

“Normally, in the past, I would be sitting right next to the child,” Lawrie-Higgins said. “I prefer to take the child to court; that way it gives them the opportunity to ask me questions before or after and feel more secure what was happening.”

After the pandemic started in March, no in-person contact was allowed for many weeks, Brandhuber said, but now it’s up to the CASA and the person who is watching the child or children.

Brandhuber said one advantage to having so many things carried out online now is that it’s easier to train more people. They’ve had eight or nine training sessions statewide since the pandemic started, she said, and over 100 new volunteers have signed up statewide.

Still, they need more.

“Thankfully, no one has left the program due to the pandemic,” she said. “People see the need for it even more now.”

Many of the children in need are living in group homes, or what’s called congregate care, and need an adult who is in their lives regularly.

“They need that one person that’s going to stick with them and show up every time,” Brandhuber said. “It’s so critical, now more than ever, for us to have that for these kids.”

“Get ahead of these problems”

Louge, of Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, said she is worried there are still so many children and families who are not getting the help they need. Neighborhoods and communities need to come together, she said, and check in with families to see how they’re doing.

“I think everyone can agree that we don’t want to remove more children,” she said. “It’s not just about reporting, it’s about supporting.”

Communities that work together can prevent child abuse or neglect before it happens, she said. She urges people to visit the Prevent Child Abuse Arizona website for more information and webinars.

“More foster care is not the answer to child abuse and neglect,” she said. “We want to get ahead of these problems.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

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