MORRIS COUNTY — As National Child Abuse Prevention Month comes to a close, Assemblywoman Aura Dunn is ensuring we keep children’s health and safety top of mind through a new bill she plans to introduce next week.
Dunn’s bill would require New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families to work with the Department of Education so that prevention efforts and services are reaching distance learning classrooms and children during a state of emergency. The bill also mandates schools to uphold attendance obligations and monitor and report absenteeism.
“With all of us sheltering in place during this Covid-19 pandemic, the truth is, our awareness is down if not nonexistent. And, that is what keeps me wide awake at night. The ‘eyes’ of prevention on any other typical day were our bus drivers, school aides, teachers, coaches, religious advisors, and others with whom children came into daily contact outside their homes. That safety net disappeared in an instant,” said Dunn (R-Morris).
During the state of emergency, reports of child abuse to the state hotline have decreased, but advocates warn that the numbers don’t paint a true picture.
“You can’t assume that everything is fine,” said Advocates for Children of New Jersey’s Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind, as reported to NJ.com. “This is a highly stressful time for families and I think people need to be vigilant and aware for the kids.”
As of March 30, the state’s child abuse hotline received 5,177 child protection or child welfare calls – a 32 percent reduction from March of 2019. Overall, the hotline received 12,080 calls last month, approximately 3,000 fewer calls from the same month in the previous year. Other states have also seen a drop in reporting. Washington state saw a 42 percent decline one week after schools were closed.
“What a painfully powerless position to be in! We know it is occurring but we cannot see it to stop it. Awareness, as our first line of defense for the defenseless, has vanished,” said Dunn. “As a legislator, I am constantly on a quest to find real solutions to improve our way of life in all policy arenas.”
Dunn is also a sponsor of A3916, another emergency-related measure, that allows for an offense against a person for an act of domestic violence or involving endangering the welfare of a child to be classified one degree higher than the underlying offense if it occurs during a declared period of national, state, or county emergency.
“The courts may be closed now; but they will reopen,” said Dunn. “This bill sends the clear message that this is a time for vigilance not lenience. It is also important for the public to be reminded that essential services remain operating and help is always available.”
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, DCF has launched a “Social Distancing Shouldn’t Mean Social Isolation” campaign to raise awareness about child abuse, domestic violence, and other dangers facing families while homebound.
“Even when our focus is on a pandemic like a coronavirus, we need to remember and practice the mantra that Fred Rogers made famous: ‘Keep children first, now and always,’” concluded Dunn.