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'Our biggest nightmares' | Ottawa County child abuse referrals plummet during stay-at-home order

Police agencies expect to see an uptick in abuse cases once the order is lifted and students return to school.

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — During Michigan's stay-at-home order, child abuse referrals from law enforcement agencies in Ottawa County have decreased dramatically, according to a local children's advocacy organization. 

"To anyone who works with child survivors of sexual or physical abuse, an order like the one we're experiencing right now is probably all of our biggest nightmares," said Darcy Fluhary, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center of Ottawa County

Staff at the center, located on Union Street in Holland Township, work with police agencies, Child Protective Services and prosecutors to investigate child abuse in the county. The CAC saw a 46% rise in new cases in 2019.

The numbers were steady at the start of 2020, but in the last month referrals dropped significantly, Fluharty said. 

"That is exactly what we feared and expected," she said. "Children who are being abused, when they finally get the courage to tell, typically tell a teacher, social worker...[maybe] a youth pastor. Those are all people they don't have direct access to when they have to stay home."

RELATED: Ottawa County sees 30% spike in domestic violence incidents, disputes during COVID-19 pandemic

Children are less likely to make statements or reports about abuse when they are in the custody of those who abuse them, said Capt. Keith Mulder with the Holland Department of Public Safety. 

"[They are] not around other adults who could assist with reporting abuse," Mulder said. "I would expect to see an increase in reports over a period of time after those contacts start up again." 

The belief is that the increase will come when children return to school, where they may be more comfortable disclosing abuses, said Bennett.

"Our children spend far more time in school interacting with teachers, social workers and peers than they do at home with their own family members," Fluharty said. "So, we will probably see our biggest uptick in the fall."

The CAC is staying in touch with survivors and their families during the pandemic, offering boxes of essentials and online counseling sessions. Staff members are focusing on social media outreach during the stay-at-home order, Fluharty said. 

"We are trying to reach out to adults and encourage them to contact their friends to see how everyone is doing," she said. "It's happening right now. There are kids in very unsafe homes, and staying connected with friends and neighbors emotionally [is] critical."

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