When Cincinnati police asked for help in their search for Nylo Lattimore in December, there was no case for the 3-year-old in Hamilton County's Department of Job and Family Services. That's where people should call if they suspect abuse or neglect of a child.
Those who work in the department saw a drop in calls from the public about children and their wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic. The same happened throughout Ohio and the nation. Calls dropped, but experts say abuse likely hasn't.
After he went missing, a photo of Nylo in a green, army print sweatsuit circulated on social media while police and the community searched for the toddler. Weeks passed with no sign of Nylo, and the rescue mission turned into a dive search.
Now, 143 days after Nylo was reported missing, crews have yet to find the boy's body in the Ohio River, where prosecutors say his mother Nyteisha Lattimore's boyfriend, Desean Brown, threw Nylo – after, they say, killing her.
Crews are also searching the river for 6-year-old James Hutchinson of Middletown. His mother, Brittany Gosney, is accused of killing him by running him over with her car after ditching him at a Preble County park on Feb. 26. Her boyfriend, James Hamilton, is accused of helping her retrieve his body from the park and toss it into the Ohio River.
Butler County Children Services say they had no contact with James' family, either.
Are abuse, neglect cases going unnoticed amid stay-at-home orders?
There's no indication whether anyone who lived near James or Nylo had suspicions about either boy's treatment, because neither county's Job and Family Services division of Children's Services, which investigate suspicions of child abuse and neglect, had information on the boys.
Without consistent contact with trusted adults at schools or face-to-face doctor visits, child advocates say it's even more crucial for neighbors and families to pay attention to the children in their lives.
In Hamilton County, children's stakeholders started a partnership last year and upped its campaign this year to urge people to call a children's hotline if they see other children who may need help.
The Greater Cincinnati partners – Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, Hamilton County Job and Family Services and Cincinnati Public Schools – are urging neighbors to report suspicions of child neglect or abuse following a marked drop in such reports during the pandemic.
Child abuse screenings fell by about 18% in Ohio in 2020, and reports of suspected abuse or neglect in Hamilton County plunged, then leveled off, in 2020.
It’s not likely that neglect or abuse has slowed, but instead, that it’s not being reported as much during the pandemic, experts say.
In response, the partnership in Hamilton County is pushing out a public safety announcement encouraging people to say something if they have suspicions.
You might have seen the PSA while watching cable TV news, such as MSNBC or CNN or Fox News. It's also showing on BET and Comedy Central, FX, TruTV and other cable stations, officials said. And it's on social media, including Hamilton County Job and Family Services' social media pages.
Pandemic offers 'new window into people’s lives'
In Ohio, child abuse screenings were down 18.3% in 2020 from 2019, according to state records requested by the Associated Press. Non-school referrals to children services were down 10.2% from 2019. School referrals were down 54.6% from 2019.
Total calls in Hamilton County dropped by about 10% in 2020 when compared with 2019, Job and Family Services records show. Calls in Butler County also dropped, by more than 17%.
The reasons for the drop, area child experts say, include the isolation families have experienced, a decline in kids’ routine visits to pediatricians and wavering school attendance. All of these issues are complicated by the emotional, social and financial impact of the pandemic.
But just as those mandated by law to report child abuse and neglect, such as doctors and teachers, have less access to children, some neighbors and families may have greater access to observe behaviors that may signal a problem.
"The pandemic is a new window into people’s lives. You’re seeing their homes through Zoom calls," said Alex Patsfall, Hamilton County Children's Services section chief of Intake Screening and After Hours Response. "A child may not say, ‘I’m scared,’ if they’re with family. They might cower, look for a safe person."
She said families and neighbors should watch for changes in the behavior of both children and adults.
In kids, be aware of:
- Sudden changes in hygiene, sleeping patterns, school performance.
- Aggressive behavior that's out of the ordinary, sexually suggestive language or actions.
- Cowering in adults' presence, becoming overly compliant, unwillingness to return to primary caregivers.
In adults, be aware of:
- Irrational or bizarre behavior.
- Indifference to or blaming a child, anger or negativity toward a child.
- Extremely overwhelmed, depressed behavior.
Last year, the Hamilton County Children's Services hotline saw a third fewer calls about abuse and neglect during the governor-mandated stay-at-home period. The group put out a PSA that shared ways to get resources such as food or financial assistance.
This time, they’re asking people with concerns to call the abuse and neglect hotline, 513-241-KIDS.
ER visits, physical abuse cases drop
The ebb and flow in calls to the hotline in 2020 were just one concern of the children's advocates. There were also fewer trips to the Cincinnati Children's emergency department for suspicion of physical abuse last year.
The department treated almost 17% fewer possible physical abuse cases in 2020 compared to 2019, records show. The emergency room does not investigate abuse but, as required, reports it to Children’s Services and law enforcement agencies. The department treated and released 169 of these cases last year and 203 in 2019.
Also, the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s had 30% fewer cases in 2020, at 840, than in 2019, with 1,211 cases, records show. The majority of the Mayerson cases are sexual abuse cases. They primarily come from Hamilton, Butler, Clermont, Adams and Highland counties. The center’s experts believe the numbers were down in 2020 because most of these concerns emerge at school, and there have been substantial gaps in in-person schooling, providing fewer school staff “eyes” on children, hospital officials said.
CPS has initiated training for teachers to improve their knowledge of mandated reporting of any suspicions they may have of their students' abuse or neglect, said Carrie Bunger, CPS' director of positive school culture and safety.
More than 50 of the city schools' teachers completed required-reporting training last year that includes what to look for in student behavior and surroundings and how to have difficult conversations with parents, Bunger said. And more than 300 signed up in January for trauma-informed care training, which is just finishing up.
While most CPS students returned to five-day in-person schooling March 31, some families have chosen to stay remote through the end of the school year, which is less than five weeks away.
“The purpose of this endeavor (the PSA) is to call upon, activate and empower community members, who already have relationships with families who may be struggling," said Dr. Carley Riley, attending physician in the division of critical care medicine at Cincinnati Children’s.