Colorado's child abuse and neglect hotline: 5 things to know

Pandemic intensifies risk factors for treatment of children, state says

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Colorado saw a decline in calls to its child abuse and neglect hotline in 2020 amid changing lifestyles in the pandemic, a trend that state officials say is concerning for children's safety.

"Usually, we see a drop in calls when school ends for summer, but the decrease started much sooner — in March when remote learning began — and continued throughout the summer," Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said in a news release.

As schools reopened with some in-person learning, calls to the hotline increased but haven't returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the human services department.

The hotline saw a 13% drop in calls in 2020, receiving 193,000 calls compared to 219,000 in 2019.

“We are hoping to demystify how the child welfare system works and overcome any hesitation people might have to calling the hotline if they are concerned about the health and safety of a child,” said Joe Homlar, director of the state Division of Child Welfare.

Here are a few things to know about the hotline, such as when to call, what happens after a call and how the system can help children in need.

Abuse and neglect defined

Abuse can include conduct by a parent or caretaker that results in death, physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation — or actions that present an imminent risk of serious harm, according to Homlar, whose division is a part of the human services department.

Neglect is the failure to meet a child's basic needs: leaving a child alone without care or supervision, a child becoming undernourished or repeatedly hungry for long periods, unattended medical or dental problems, or not having warm clothes or shoes in winter are some examples, Homlar said.

Concerned adults shouldn't get too caught up in the details, according to the state.

“If someone has concerns about a child, they should trust their instincts and call the hotline,” which is 844-CO-4-Kids, Homlar said. “They do not need to know all the details to make a call. All calls are screened by professionals and, if warranted, a caseworker will assess the safety of the child.”

But if a situation is life-threatening, Coloradans should call law enforcement immediately.

“For example, if you see a toddler walking alone on the street, or you witness a crime that involves a child, you should call 911,” Homlar said.

What happens next?

Calls to the hotline are routed to the appropriate county. Each call is screened to determine whether a situation may meet legal guidelines of abuse or neglect, Homlar said.

If the report meets certain guidelines, a caseworker will contact the child and family to gather information and determine whether abuse or neglect occurred.

“It's important to note that decisions about removing a child are made by judges,” Homlar said.

If the assessment rules out abuse or neglect, families also can be referred to other services depending on the needs. If officials determine that abuse or neglect occurred, the caseworker works with the family and develops plans and a timeline to meet goals, Homlar said.

In many cases, kids can remain at home

The human services department emphasizes that historically, more than 80% of the child abuse and neglect allegations in Colorado were classified as neglect, not abuse, according to data from the last three years. That trend has likely been occurring much longer, Homlar said.

And in many cases, counties can provide services to help families find stability — and kids can remain at home with their parents.

“Some of these services may include assistance applying for benefits or classes to help parents manage stress,” Homlar said.

No need to be nervous about calling

Officials know that making a call to the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline can be stressful.

“It's normal to be unsure about what will come of this information,” Homlar said. “When in doubt, make the call to the hotline and share the information that you do have. One thing we emphasize in our work is that child welfare can help a parent or family get the resources (they need).”

All callers may choose to report concerns anonymously, and all reports will remain confidential. It is likely that a caller may be contacted during the assessment phase, and possibly during the process of the case, for more information, Homlar said.

Pandemic exacerbates risk factors

In 2020 compared to 2019, calls from education professionals decreased by nearly 30%, and calls from medical professionals decreased by nearly 11%, while calls from family and friends increased 5%, according to the news release.

Risk factors for child abuse and neglect include social isolation, family and parenting stress, financial uncertainty and insecurity, and the absence of child care or school — all factors that increased during the pandemic, the release said.

"Coronavirus has brought many unknowns, but what we do know is that we need one another,” Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families, said in the release.

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