During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, those who care for Utah’s abused children witnessed an eerie phenomenon.
“All of a sudden, it seemed like the floor dropped out. We weren’t having any cases coming into clinic,” Dr. Antoinette Laskey told reporters during a virtual news conference Monday from Salt Lake City to mark April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Laskey, division chief of child protection and family health for University of Utah Health and medical director of Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital’s Center for Safe and Healthy Families, said the number of child abuse cases in Utah and the rest of the country typically stay stable year to year.
But suddenly, children who weren’t hurt severely enough by someone close to them to require a trip to the hospital were no longer turning up for medical treatment in Utah and the rest of the country, she said. “Our clinics got really quiet, which is frightening to us because we know that child abuse doesn’t just go away.”
At the same time, there was only a brief pause in child abuse cases that needed to be treated at a hospital, Laskey said.
“The reality is, is that we believe children were at home and didn’t have the safety net that was normally in place, which is the schools and the other people in their lives that they would have as safety nets, like their churches, like their sports activities,” she said.
That meant there were children who were being sexually or physically abused that no one was seeing, so they weren’t able to get the care they needed. Adding to their distress is the physical and emotional impact on children of the increase in domestic violence cases during the pandemic.
When most schools resumed at least some in-person learning last fall, Laskey said child abuse and teenage sexual assault cases began to return to normal as young victims shared their situation with teachers, counselors and other students. She said educators are responsible for reporting the “vast majority” of such cases.
But the public also has a responsibility to step up and help abused children, the doctor said.
“We all have a legal obligation, which is completely aside from the moral obligation, to speak up on behalf of children. When children have something like this happening in their life, they need an adult to help them, she said, “That adult is often somebody outside of their household because abuse often happens in the home.”
Children should be believed when they talk about abuse, Laskey said, and adults should alert authorities so the situation can be investigated. She said too many times, neighbors hear a child “screaming and crying” while being physically abused but do nothing.
“Those children can go on to be so physically injured that need hospitalization and in a worst-case scenario, they can be killed. So if you hear something that causes you to worry that child is not safe, it’s important to call,” she said, either police or the state Child Protective Services hotline, 1-855-323-3237.
Some may hesitate to call out of concern the child would be removed from the home even if it turns out the situation was misunderstood, but Laskey said that happens only if the situation is deemed dangerous by authorities.
“Children rely on adults in their lives to keep them safe,” she said. “If they have the misfortune of having someone in their life that’s hurting them, you may be the adult that’s going to keep them safe. So when a child shares something with you, really understand that they’re giving you the opportunity to make a difference in their lives.”
More than 10,500 children in Utah were victims of child abuse in 2019, the most current year statistics are available. Caregivers have put 1,809 blue and silver pinwheels on the lawn of Primary Children’s Hospital, representing the number of child abuse deaths nationwide in 2019.
Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers
Monday, the Utah Department of Health reported 200 new COVID-19 cases in the state, along with two additional deaths from the virus. The total number of coronavirus cases in Utah since the pandemic began more than a year ago is now at 392,957.
The state has administered a total of 1,898,857 vaccine doses, a daily increase of 1,326.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 382 per day, Initially, the state health department reported an additional 2,695 Utahns took tests for the virus since Sunday, with 5,021 total tests conducted, but later updated those numbers to 3,445 Utahns taking 20,923 tests since Sunday.
The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of COVID-19 tests is 3.5% when all results are included, the method used by the state to help calculate a county’s transmission index, and 6.9% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
Currently, 138 people are hospitalized in Utah with the coronavirus. Utah’s death toll has reached 2,166 with the two additional deaths reported Monday, a man and a woman, both from Weber County and both 45-64. The man was hospitalized at the time of his death and the woman was a long-term care facility resident.