The coronavirus pandemic may be having a severe impact on one of Florida's most vulnerable and heartbreaking populations: child abuse victims.
During a roundtable discussion about COVID-19 and its effects on mental health at the Tampa Bay Crisis Center on Thursday, Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell said the pandemic has led to a "concerning" drop in calls to DCF's Child Abuse Hotline.
"The child abuse hotline, every year when school lets out, sees around a 25% reduction in calls," Poppell said. "That's because our number one reporter, mandatory reporter of child abuse, are our teachers."
Poppell said that when schools statewide abruptly switched to distance learning back in March, students had no in-person contact with their teachers, which led to a greater lag in calls to the hotline.
"So instead of having a two, two-and-a-half-month break where teachers don't get to see the kids, we're working on a much longer period of time," Poppell said. "And so that's one of the things that we're actually very concerned about."
Poppell fears many child abuse and neglect cases are going unreported because of the pandemic.
In addition, courts across the state have moved to telecourt hearings, and some parties are not comfortable hearing child welfare cases through a computer screen.
"We have some children that are probably going to be in the system a bit longer than we would like," Poppell said. "There's a number of pieces of the child welfare system that have seen some, I would call it a step back that we are focused very heavily on and we are very concerned about."
To report a case of abuse or neglect to DCF's Child Abuse Hotline, call 1-800-962-2873, or click here.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Coronavirus
Thursday's roundtable in Tampa was hosted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis.
The governor said the COVID-19 crisis is affecting everyone's mental health, from people who can't visit their loved ones in nursing homes to children who can't see their friends at school because of distance learning.
Florida recently increased mental health funding by $25 million in K-12 schools in Florida, according to DeSantis.
"It's very important that we have this funding. It's critical," DeSantis said.
First Lady Casey DeSantis added that the isolation of online education has not only triggered strong emotions in children, but in their caregivers as well.
"We talk about our kids, but we need to talk about the parents. Everyone is enduring this crisis," Casey DeSantis said.
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health on Thursday, there are 315,775 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Florida, including 4,677 deaths, a record increase of 156 newly reported deaths from the day before.