Juvenile Court Judges Discuss Effects of Pandemic for Child Abuse Prevention Month

April 29, 2021

Since 1983, April has been recognized as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time to raise awareness about the pervasiveness and lasting harm of childhood neglect and mistreatment.

Study after study has shown that abuse during childhood can lead to a range of negative outcomes later in life. Children who suffer abuse are more likely to experience poor physical and mental health, displaying markedly higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, cognitive impairment, criminal activity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Tennessee’s juvenile court judges know all too well the life-altering effects child abuse can wreak. And this Child Abuse Prevention Month, more than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, they are deeply concerned about the well-being of the state’s children.

Both Williamson County Juvenile Court Judge Sharon Guffee and Sevier County General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Jeff Rader said this past year has presented a number of unprecedented challenges for Tennessee youths and those whose jobs it is to protect them.

“A lot of people are afraid,” Judge Rader said. “They’re sick. They’re drug addicted. They don’t have a lot of money. In some instances, they’re not working; their businesses have been shut down. There is a myriad of complications affecting adults, and when increased stress is placed on adults then the trickle-down effect is going to be a bad situation for children.”

The economic and psychological impacts of the pandemic have been exacerbated by one of the most universally-experienced phenomena of the past year: isolation.

Children who are abused by members of their own household are always in a terrible situation, but that situation is made even more terrible if everyone is stuck in the house together.

“The concern is that one or more of the abusers are not working, which means they are at home more,” Judge Rader said. “I think the possibility for additional or increased problems is certainly of major concern for anybody that does juvenile work.”

The greater isolation over the past year has also meant that there has been less opportunity for those outside the household to potentially recognize maltreatment.

“The dynamic that we most saw in the very beginning was the lack of eyes on children,” Judge Guffee said. “We rely so much on the teachers and the administrators in the schools to protect our children. We really missed that. There were several months where I believe Department of Children’s Services referrals were way down, and we sort of felt that, too. It was really sort of surreal, like time had stopped.”

Judge Rader agreed that the pandemic had taken away one of the most important tools for identifying abuse.

“We know we are not getting a full picture of how children are doing because some of the most consistent contact a child may have in their life is going to be at school,” he said. “So when that contact is not there then you obviously have concerns that if the child is at home then there is no opportunity for the abuse to be discovered.”

Statistics back up a decline in the number of reported cases of child abuse. A comprehensive Associated Press review of child welfare agency data across the country “found that child abuse reports, investigations, substantiated allegations and interventions have dropped at a staggering rate, increasing risks for the most vulnerable of families in the U.S.” Overall, they discovered “more than 400,000 fewer child welfare concerns reported during the pandemic and 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations and assessments compared with the same time period of 2019.” That is the equivalent of an 18 percent drop nationwide.

In Tennessee, a report from relatively early in the pandemic had even more troubling numbers. According the July 2020 report of the state’s Child Wellbeing Task Force, “during peak stay-at-home orders, reports of suspected child abuse dropped by 27%, in large part due to mandatory reporters, such as teachers and pediatricians, being disconnected from children and families.”

Neither Judge Guffee nor Judge Rader think that the drop in child abuse reports corresponded to an actual decrease in instances of child abuse.

On the contrary, other trends they have seen led them to believe that abuse cases may have been increasing and intensifying. Chiefly, the pandemic has seen a jump in substance abuse, a behavior that often accompanies situations involving child abuse and neglect.

“The majority of the cases we deal with are prompted by drug issues related to the parent or custodian,” Judge Rader said. “I believe there is a direct correlation between increased drug use during this pandemic and the safety of our children, no question.”

Judge Guffee has seen evidence of an increase in heroin and meth use. She said that upsurge has led to the presence of child abuse cases that are more severe than usual.

“What I noticed about them is that they were even more serious than what we typically saw,” she said. “In other words, there would be substance abuse, but it would be heightened substance abuse. It would be overdoses. The narratives in the petitions would be so much more descriptive in terms of the effect on the children.”

Some of the pandemic’s negative effects on children do not fall under the heading of abuse, but may nevertheless have lasting consequences.

That is Judge Guffee’s fear concerning the steep rise in truancy cases she has seen over the past year.

“Our truancy petitions have increased almost 40 percent since last year,” she said. “Those aren’t just truancies from in-person attendance, but truancies from online learning, where some kids just aren’t logging in. So the mental health piece for our students, for our youth, is enormous. Our school system is already bracing for and preparing for mental health issues when the students return in person next year. We just don’t know what the long-term effects of this disruption will be.”

Judge Rader fears that kids who are falling behind in school now will be more likely to have problems later on.

“When they get behind and get frustrated, they don’t want to go to school, and when they don’t go to school is when they get into trouble,” he said.

Like other judges throughout the state, Judge Guffee and Judge Rader kept their courts running as best they could this past year by utilizing remote video technology. Aspects of that technology have been embraced by many judges, who praise the increased convenience and efficiency it can bring to the courtroom in certain circumstances. Judge Guffee and Judge Rader, though, found that what can work well in an adult setting does not necessarily work as well with kids.

“If the child is 14 or under, it can be difficult to have an effective hearing,” Judge Rader said. “In many cases, it will have to be abbreviated due to limitations on children’s attention spans. Plus, you don’t have the ability to see visual cues. It’s not an ideal situation that’s for sure.”

Judge Guffee said that while many of the kids she held virtual hearings with were able to adapt to the technology very quickly, something was still lost not having them in court.

“We really miss that eyes-on experience in our child welfare cases, where I’m required by law to see them and check on them,” she said. “I really miss that direct contact you just don’t get on a video screen.”

She said that the situation was worse when dealing with remote delinquent proceedings.  In some instances “you’ve got a kid sitting on his couch lounging, not even the least bit thinking of it being a court appearance,” Judge Guffee said.

For all of the challenges that the pandemic has created, Judge Guffee said she is proud of those who have been on the front lines throughout trying to protect children.

“The DCS’ child protective services investigators are some of the most dedicated people that I know, working behind the scenes to protect children every day,” she said.

With the pandemic weakening in Tennessee, Judge Guffee is hopeful that a sense of normalcy will soon begin to return to the courtroom.

“I’m hopeful that this summer is going to be the turning point,” she said.

Judge Rader is also looking forward to things improving, but emphasized that there will need to be increased vigilance to protect those still dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to work together and to be vigilant and mindful of what’s going on in the children’s home life because I really feel like there are a lot of situations where they are probably much more isolated and closed off than they used to be without access to someone who may advocate for them when they need it,” he said. “We’re going to have to be thinking of what resources we can put in place moving forward at the ground level.”

Judge Sharon Guffee

Judge Jeff Rader