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KARE 11 Investigates: COVID-19 puts kids more at risk for abuse, exploitation

Teachers are on the front lines of spotting abuse, but with schools closed, mandated reporters can’t keep their eyes on at-risk kids

With schools closed and mandated reporters such as teachers not able keep their eyes on at-risk youth, child advocates say kids are at higher risk for abuse and exploitation.

“If they’re not seeing the kids, they’re not reporting it,” said Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota, which advocates for child welfare.

Teachers are often the first people to see signs of abuse.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nationwide, one in every five child maltreatment reports comes from teachers and other educational professionals.

Mandated reporters such as teachers and doctors make up about 80 percent of all child abuse reports in Minnesota, according to the data from the state Department of Human Services.

But KARE 11 Investigates discovered those reports are plummeting. Last week, the number of child abuse reports across Minnesota dropped 30 percent, according to DHS.

“The abuse is still happening, it’s just not being seen,” Gehrman said. He worries that without attention paid by child protection, abusive situations will only get worse.

“I think the biggest risk is that there will be an increase in actual maltreatment. But less of it will be seen because children are not out in the community where teachers and childcare workers and other professionals will pick up on it,” Gehrman said.

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For Information on how to report child abuse in Minnesota, click here.

When child protection does get a report, workers are trying to make sure that they’re able to safely investigate the complaint without being infected with coronavirus, said Kim Cleminson, Ramsey County’s director of Child and Family Services.

Child protection workers will call the homes when they can to see if anyone in the family is sick or been exposed, try to practice social distancing when meeting and talking outside when possible.

She said so far none of her workers has become sick.

Kids home from school are also at an increased risk of online exploitation, the FBI warned on Monday. With more time to spend on the internet, they’re more prone to be lured in to providing sexually explicit images or developing inappropriate relationships with adults.

“There is a lot of downtime for kids and young adults to be online without supervision,” said FBI spokesman Kevin Smith. “The message from us the FBI today is simple: be aware of what your children are doing online and with whom they’re communicating.”

For FBI’s recommendations on preventing online exploitation and spotting signs of abuse, click here.

Gehrman said with kids out of school for a prolonged period due to the COVID –19 emergency, it’s incumbent upon Minnesotans to speak up if they spot signs of abuse.

“I think that puts more responsibility on family, friends, and relatives who see child abuse to report it themselves,” he said.

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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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