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Keep an eye out for child abuse during shelter-in-place orders

Children can no longer find respite from their abusers during school hours or time spent elsewhere


Without regular interaction with these teachers, school resource officers, relatives and neighbors, a child is isolated during these restrictive times.


April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. With national shelter-in-place orders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more critical than ever to be aware of children who may need help.

National child abuse statistics paint a grim story: “Every year, more than three million reports of child abuse are made in the United States, involving more than six million children; a report can include multiple children. A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds. Children who are victims of child abuse and neglect are about 9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity. On average, more than 70% of the children who die as a result of child abuse or neglect are two years of age or younger.”

In addition, 75% of fatal child abuse victims are under the age of 3 years old, and 78% of the fatally abused children were harmed by a parent.

No respite from abuse

With shelter-in-place orders in effect, children can no longer find respite from their abusers during school hours or during the time spent with friends or elsewhere. Add other factors such as loss of job and wages, increased alcohol or drug abuse, or sheer boredom from being restricted to the household, and the likelihood of abuse is heightened.

Those regularly responsible for the bulk of noticing and reporting child-related abuse and neglect are on hiatus from school as well. Teachers, school administrators, school nurses, school resource officers and others who saw school kids on an almost daily basis are now out of the equation.

It is up to law enforcement officers to be aware of children present at calls for service during the quarantine. Cops are lifesavers. Lifesaving comes in many forms besides the obvious ones. Saving a life may come in the form of issuing a traffic citation for driving with a child untethered in a moving car (not in a car seat, booster seat or seatbelt). Certainly, an officer can save the life of a child left unattended in a car on a hot or even mildly warm day. With some attention to detail and signs that may indicate further investigation, it can come in the form of removing a child from an abusive situation that may only worsen without intervention.

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 2010 describes child abuse as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of the parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation (including sexual abuse as determined under section 111), or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Approximately 18 states and territories list those responsible for Mandatory Reporting requirements, and all identify most medical professionals, teachers and law enforcement officers. Most states recognize four major types of maltreatment: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Additionally, many states identify abandonment, parental substance use, and human trafficking as abuse or neglect.

Signs of physical child abuse

These signs can be obvious or innocuous. Obvious signs of abuse may be cuts, bruises, burns, bites, unhealed wounds and missing patches of hair. Emotionally, the child may act angry, scared, depressed and/or fearful. They may avoid eye contact, or they may confide in you, given the right opportunity. Of the options and actions available, rationalizing the signs and indicators of child abuse should not be one of those options.

Signs of neglect

These signs may present in the form of deficient hygiene. The child may be unwashed, dirty and disheveled beyond that of a typical youth. Poor teeth hygiene, sickness and inappropriate clothes for the weather may be indicators. They may be found shoplifting food or pulling a “dine and dash” because they are hungry. There may be indications of drug or alcohol abuse. They may be found out late at night, saying that there is nobody home, or that no one is around to keep an eye on them.

Signs of sexual abuse

These signs include the child exhibiting injury or pain complaints regarding their genitals. They may have problems walking or sitting. Younger children may exhibit unusual and over-sophisticated sexual behaviors. You may encounter them as runaways or staying out late at night, not wanting to go home.

Understanding mandatory reporting

Mandatory reporting is just that, mandatory, with criminal sanctions for failing to report. Certainly, it is important to know the rules, laws and protocols within your agency’s jurisdiction.

Social workers and Child Protective Services partners can help lead the investigation. Make sure that protocols and department orders are current and followed.

In June 2019, a Northern California police department investigated a possible child sexual abuse allegation and is currently under investigation to ensure that current protocols were adhered to.

Mandatory reporting training should be conducted every two years, depending on your state. If you cannot recall the last time you were trained, ask for it. Additional training on recognizing signs of child abuse and neglect may be available at your local Social Services Department, Child Protective Services, and community-based child advocates and non-profit agencies.

Use available resources

As the new captain of the Juvenile Division several years ago, I had the good fortune to meet the executive director of the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center, Kathy Baxter. Kathy taught me everything I needed to know and understand about the complex field of child abuse, including navigating the issues in child examinations and interviews. She was a conduit who advocated for the child’s interests and safety among agencies that included the police, district attorney, pediatricians, public health and social services. She now works for a child abuse prevention non-profit called Partners in Prevention and offers the resources of the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4ACHILD) and child abuse prevention tools and materials at Partners in Prevention.


Child abuse occurs even during times when all of our social safeguards are in place. Changes in a child’s behavior or visual indicators of injury may be apparent to a teacher, a school nurse, a school resource officer, or even a relative or neighbor. Without regular interaction with these people, a child is isolated during these restrictive times. With current government orders to stay inside the home, children in precarious situations are even more vulnerable, with no relief or aid from outsiders.

It is up to law enforcement to look out for the vulnerable kids who may have been betrayed by the very individuals who should be ensuring their health and welfare. Be mindful when responding to a call for service inside a home where children are present. Take the time to be mindful and assess the situation where a child or someone in the household may be looking to discretely indicate that they need help.

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.