Data from several local agencies indicate that reports of child abuse stayed the same or actually declined during the period of time McKean County was in the red zone.

So does this mean incidences of child abuse went down, or is there something else going on?

During a recent interview with Era staff, Tonia Hartzell, advocate for the McKean County Children’s Advocacy Center, explained that child abuse reports have declined for her agency and she had a logical explanation for the decrease.

According to Hartzell, while families were on lockdown, they were limited in interactions with individuals outside of the household, thus those who would normally serve as mandatory reporters (teachers, childcare providers, medical professionals, etc.) were not around to observe the telltale signs of abuse. In fact, she explained that most children are more likely to tell someone else about abuse, rather than their own caregivers. She illustrated this fact with an example of a child being contacted by a stranger on the internet.

“Chances are, a teenager or a small child, no matter how many times a caregiver tells them, (to let them know about contact from a stranger), they might not tell their caregiver. They may tell their friend, they might tell someone at church or another member of the community.”

The local trend Hartzell conveyed for McKean County closely matches current national trends regarding reports of child abuse in the United States between late March and late June.

According to an NBC News analysis, reports of child abuse have plummeted around the nation, while experts fear there may actually be an “unseen surge” in abuse behind closed doors due to unemployment and financial strain related to COVID-19. In fact, data from the 900 children’s advocacy centers affiliated with the National Children’s Alliance shows they have served 40,000 fewer children between January and June of this year than the same period last year, resulting in a 21 percent drop.

It is unclear whether the nation will see an increase in reporting now that most children are back in school and many parents are back to work, though Hartzell emphasized the importance that anyone, whether they are a mandatory reporter or not, should report any red flags they may see, no matter how minute they are.

“The mailman, the restaurant worker — all you need is suspicion,” she noted. “You don’t need addresses, you don’t need phone numbers.”

If you have encountered a child you suspect may be a victim of child abuse or neglect, you can call or text the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) or contact your local child advocacy center or children and youth services agency.