MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — Each year since 1983, April has been National Child Abuse Prevention Month. To spread awareness, Vermonters traditionally participate in walks, bike rides, and other in-person fundraisers. While most have been postponed by the pandemic, state leaders continue addressing the issue.
In 2019, the Vermont Department for Children and Families got more than 20,000 phone calls of suspected abuse or neglect. But that number is trending downward. “2017 was a peak, and at that time, there was 21,201 calls. So, we’ve actually gone down each year since then,” said Family Services Deputy Commissioner Aryka Radke.
Radke says it’s a result of identifying families who are struggling before it resorts to violence and abuse. “To comfort Vermonters: It’s not that prevalent, but it is around,” said Det. Sgt. Lauren Ronan with Vermont State Police.
Although the total number of calls made in 2020 isn’t available yet, Ronan says Vermont State Police are seeing an increase in child exploitation online. “That’s because kids are at home and finding they’re entertainment online,” she said. “They’re not out and about.”
Ronan says at least 78% of last year’s calls were from people legally required to report suspected abuse or neglect. And that COVID-19 has affected their interactions with kids.
“Our number one source of mandated reports are teachers, who are in the school, who have a hand on kids, who have that direct contact and are able to make those assessments. They’re not seeing children in the way that they did,” said Vermont Children Alliance Outreach & Awareness Director Jennifer Poehlmann.
Once children return to school in-person, full-time, Poehlmann says she expects reports to increase. But even from afar, teachers and neighbors can still step in. “There is that if you see something say something, but we’re just trying to encourage individuals to realize that it is all of our business to make a difference in the life of a child,” Poehlmann says.
The Vermont Children Alliance is launching a campaign called #It’sYourBusiness. She says Vermonters have an obligation to protect children and report any suspicious behavior.
Ronan says VSP isn’t looking to disrupt families, but to make children feel safe in their homes. “I think with doing these cases, I’ve taken away a lot of pride in my work. I’ve taken kids out of bad situations, I’ve made numerous arrests. And, at the end of the day, I know and feel like I’m making a difference in the community,” she said.