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Millions of people are staying home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, for some, staying home causes an increased risk of danger.

Children are facing an increased risk of abuse and neglect, but more cases typically go unreported or unnoticed while schools are closed. Teachers are often the first to see signs of abuse, and they are required to report any suspected child maltreatment.

Since March 11, calls to Missouri's child abuse and neglect hotline have dropped by about half, from about 680 calls the week of March 12 to about 320 the following week.

"We don't have eyes on these kids and are worried that the higher stress in homes can lead to more abuse," said Mary Winter, board president of Capital City Court-Appointed Special Advocates, a local organization made up of volunteers who advocate for abused and neglected children in courtrooms.

The calls have dropped far more than they typically do when school is out for the summer, said Joy Oesterly, executive director of advocacy group Missouri KidsFirst.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused many stressors that could increase child abuse, such as people losing their jobs.

"Even kids that we would never be concerned about being in an abusive situation may be exposed to that just because of the extreme circumstances of COVID-19," Oesterly said.

Adults are also facing a greater risk of domestic violence, which is traumatic for victims and their children, as children are at home witnessing it.

Many mental health services and child advocacy services have resorted to video-chatting, phone calls or messaging instead of meeting in person.

CASA advocate Lisa Bax and her therapy dog, Olive, have been video-chatting with children in foster homes. She has also been sending messages to these children on social media, sending letters in the mail and calling them.

"We're just being creative in how we reach out to these kiddos until the time passes," Bax said. "It's just making a creative approach to let the kiddos know that, as an advocate, we are still there if they need us."

The Missouri Department of Social Services is urging everyone to be especially attentive to the safety and well-being of children at this time and to report suspected child abuse concerns by calling the child abuse and neglect hotline at 1-800-392-3738. The hotline is answered at any time, and callers can report anonymously.

Signs of child abuse include physical injuries and strange behavior. The child may appear afraid or stifled, Oesterly said, as if somebody is controlling what they're saying.

It is important for all adults to be more aware of unusual interactions between families and physical signs of abuse, she said. If the child has injuries, you should ask the child about it.

Grocery store attendants and delivery drivers now play an important role in reporting child abuse, Oesterly said, and teachers should also look out for signs if they are video-chatting with their students.

Missouri KidsFirst is developing materials with more information on signs of child abuse that they plan to release online next week.

Capital City CASA is also releasing materials about preventing child abuse on its Facebook page next month for Child Abuse Prevention Month.

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