On a typical day, up to 1,000 calls and reports of suspected child abuse and neglect flood into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Department of Children and Family Services.
Eagle-eyed teachers, doctors, dentists, counselors, coaches — an army of mandated reporters across California — along with security guards, janitors and observant parents typically fill the hotline with reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. Those calls, investigators say, often save lives.
But since the outbreak of the coronavirus has shuttered schools, curtailed medical visits and largely hidden the lives of children behind closed doors, the reports of suspected abuse have dropped by as much as 50%. The drop began almost immediately after California began its stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We usually have a lot of eyes and ears out there making sure children are safe. But right now we don’t know what is happening behind closed doors,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva said Monday in an interview.
“We do not want another Gabriel Fernandez or another Anthony Avalos,” he said, referring to two young boys who were killed after lengthy and repeated incidents of abuse at home. “That is my worst nightmare.”
In Fernandez’s case, highlighted by The Times and a Netflix series, social workers and sheriff’s deputies failed to act despite repeated reports by a slew of mandated reporters in Palmdale before the 8-year-old succumbed to his horrific injuries in 2013.
In March, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department documented about 4,200 reports on its suspected-child-abuse reporting system, compared with 5,218 reports the year before. The drop is even more dramatic so far in April, with 662 reports in the first week, compared with 1,352 in 2019.
“These numbers are alarming because of the magnitude of the decline,” Villaneuva said.
Those declines also come as his deputies are responding to an uptick in reports of domestic violence as residents are under stay-at-home orders to prevent the disease’s spread.
In response to the drop in abuse reports, Villanueva said he is launching a plan “to do welfare checks on our most at-risk kids with patrol personnel.” He said he is working with the Special Victims Unit, the Department of Children and Family Services and other stakeholders to develop a way to identify high-risk minors who may not have contact with their schools and then have patrol deputies do some form of a welfare check.
The sheriff, who spent years working the streets and is a veteran of child abuse and neglect investigations, said teachers, daycare workers and janitors are key to investigators when it comes to protecting children.
Without schools, daycare facilities and counseling programs, he said the abuse is likely to still be going on out of sight.
“We are at the mercy of those who report. We need the community to take up the slack,” he said.
Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher, who oversees detectives, said in the first month since the stay-at-home order the department has recorded a 44% drop in suspected child abuse reports with 1,173 from March 17 to April 17, compared with 2,488 for the same period in 2019.
Ginger Pryor, chief deputy director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said the decline in reports is unprecedented and is occurring across the nation as most areas have gone into some form of a shutdown because of the pandemic.