A pattern firmly entrenched for years — El Paso County receiving more calls of suspected child abuse and neglect to the state hotline, referrals for case review and full-blown investigations than any other locale in Colorado — continued during the pandemic, according to recently released statistics for 2021.
While no one wants to see any instance of child abuse, having a high number of hotline calls means that the crisis service is working, said Keri Kahn, spokeswoman for CASA of the Pikes Peak Region, which provides adult advocates for children in mistreatment court cases.
“The high number of calls is evidence that the community cares deeply about the well-being of our children,” she said. “It’s also evidence that community members know about the hotline, and they know to call it.”
Statewide reports to the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, a program of the Colorado Department of Human Services, dropped significantly in 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions forced schools and day care centers to close entirely and then intermittently.
Professionals in medical fields, education and law are among mandatory reporters of alleged maltreatment or concerns about the safety of a child under age 18.
Less contact between children and adults outside the home during the pandemic is believed to have led to the sharp decline in hotline calls, said Joe Homlar, director of the Division of Child Welfare at the Office of Children, Youth and Families.
But the drop in calls did not mean that abuse was decreasing, Kahn said.
“We suspected early on that the pandemic would result in an increase in abuse, and sadly that turned out to be correct,” she said.
CASA’s caseload focusing on children involved in court proceedings regarding abuse, neglect or severe domestic conflict rose “pretty drastically” during the early days of COVID to about 40 children per month, Kahn said. That's up from 20 children a month pre-pandemic — despite the hotline calls decreasing, she said.
And while CASA cases have fallen since then, the organization continues to receive more cases than before COVID, with today’s average of 30 children per month, Kahn said.
The state hit a low of 193,448 child abuse and neglect hotline calls in 2020, but number increased 8% in 2021 to 208,949. That’s approaching 2019’s total of 219,478, according to state officials.
“While numbers haven’t rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, we’ve seen a large increase,” Homlar said.
Of last year’s 109,929 reports referred for further examination, 15,712 came from El Paso County. The second highest number was posted in Arapahoe County, with 12,791 referrals. Denver County had 12,426, according to state data.
El Paso County also saw the largest number of cases that were investigated, deemed as meeting the legal definition for possible abuse or neglect.
The “why” is complicated, officials say. While El Paso has grown to be the largest county in Colorado, its status at the top of hotline calls existed before it was the most populous.
“We live in a community that is very responsive, and they’re very good at calling when they’re worried or have a reasonable suspicion,” said April Jenkins, children, youth and family services intake manager for El Paso County Department of Human Services.
Some have wondered over the years if El Paso County having the most military installations — five — of any county in the nation has something to do with the reports.
Child abuse and neglect happen in families of any background, profession, economic bracket or geographic location and is not limited to a specific subgroup, said Kristina Iodice, spokeswoman for El Paso County Department of Human Services.
“You basically have a family in stress,” she said.
Key risk factors include social isolation, parenting troubles, financial instability, limited child care and school disruptions, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Factors behind El Paso County’s high numbers don’t always present direct correlation, Jenkins said.
“During the pandemic, we had a clear picture of why we weren’t getting as many reports, but it’s usually difficult to say exactly what drives our numbers from year to year,” she said. “Child abuse and neglect is sometimes unpredictable and a very difficult thing for us to understand why it fluctuates.”
Residents don’t have to be considered a mandatory reporter to call the 24/7 hotline (1-844-CO-4-KIDS). Anyone who has a “reasonable suspicion” that something isn’t right with a child can pick up the phone and describe what’s going on, Jenkins said.
El Paso County also historically has had among the highest numbers of non-mandatory reports in the state, Iodice said.
“We know our community is very focused and cares a lot for those who are the most vulnerable — and that includes children and also seniors.”
Reporting suspected physical abuse, malnutrition, unlawful sexual behavior, substance abuse, dangerous situations, inadequate food, clothing and shelter, and other improper conditions children may be experiencing is among the safety nets for protecting minors, according to DHS.
Another way to help, Kahn said, is to become a volunteer with CASA, short for Court Appointed Special Advocate.
The next volunteer information session will be held from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday at the CASA office, 418 S. Weber St. For more information, go to https://www.casappr.org/events.
Throughout the pandemic, DHS caseworkers met face-to-face with children and families in response to allegations of abuse or maltreatment, Homlar said.
“We’ve seen families being strong and resilient during very challenging times, and we all know that anyone can help strengthen families by reaching out to parents and caregivers, and if appropriate, offering to help connect them with local services,” he said.
“Our caseworkers are available to assess if there’s a safety concern and connect families to support and resources.”