Mt. Emily Safe Center

Mt. Emily Safe Center Executive Director Kim McDonald poses for a photo in front of the La Grande facility that helps children who have been victims of abuse. This year, the number of reports of child abuse are down, possibly due to the coronavirus outbreak.

LA GRANDE — Mt. Emily Safe Center and the La Grande Police Department are concerned child abuse is going unreported due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When COVID-19 started we actually anticipated an uptick,” La Grande police detective Sgt. Mike Harris said. “The catch is with the reporting of cases.”

In 2018 La Grande Police Department reported 329 cases of child abuse. This includes physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. In 2019 the department reported 390 cases, and as of July 1 there have been 134 cases of child abuse. Harris said the difference in numbers is in part due to a change in the process of reporting, but this year’s change likely is to be more significant because children are not outside their home as much due to the quarantine for COVID-19.

Mt. Emily Safe Center, La Grande, is dedicated to helping children who may be victims of abuse through counseling, advocacy, forensic interviews and medical examinations. A child and family advocate at the center, Amy Morgan, echoed Harris’ concerns, specifically about the downward trend in the number of child abuse cases. Since January, Mt. Emily Safe Center has served 43 children. In that same time frame in 2019, 51 children received help from the center.

Kim McDonald, the center’s executive director, said reports of child abuse generally trend down in the summer and up in the school year, when children are around more people, including mandatory reporters such as teachers and day care staff. This year, however, due to COVID-19 putting children at home since March, it is possible there has been an increase in incidences of abuse but an underreporting of that abuse due to children being less visible.

The reality is victims who experience abuse at home may have been stuck with their abuser during quarantine, McDonald said.

She said the center is preparing for an uptick in reports when children return to classrooms and as social distancing restrictions are lifted.

“We hope that doesn’t happen, but it is a concerning trend that it might, especially with this isolation,” she said.

Morgan said the center is doing what it can to raise awareness of these issues through social media posts showcasing articles about abuse, ideas for crafts and ways to cope with stress.

Katie Greathouse, a counselor for Mt. Emily Safe Center, said caregiver stress can potentially increase the likelihood of abuse in the home.

“In my experience, if families feel like they have outlets, support and resources, it can reduce abuse in the home,” Greathouse said.

Mt. Emily Safe Center provides some of these services through counseling, respite services and encouraging families to find ways to relieve stress both inside and outside of the home, together and alone.

Greathouse said she has noticed an increase in abusive dynamics in addition to heightened stress, anxiety and depression in her clients through her sessions and conversations with them.

Isolation and quarantine may be causing these issues, at least in part, Greathouse speculated. The lack of clients during this stressful time worries her.

Mt. Emily Safe Center has seen a decrease in clientele over the last three years, with a significant drop this year. Between Jan. 1 and June 30 in 2018 the center saw 65 children. In the same time in 2019 it saw 51 children, and in 2020 it saw 43 children.

“We’ve had a dramatic drop in calls to the hotline,” Greathouse said. “We don’t assume the abuse isn’t happening, though, but that people don’t feel like they have a place to tell, or it is just not being seen outside the home.”

She encouraged people who believe they may be witnessing abuse to call the center’s hotline at 855-503-7233.

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