Family Dept.: Child abuse referrals on the rise during pandemic

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

The Puerto Rico Family Department recognized on Tuesday during a joint Senate public hearing that the numbers of received and substantiated child abuse referrals continue to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, although the entity supplied data that seems contradictory to what was presented late last week.

During the hearing held by the Senate Committee on Social Welfare, Family Secretary Dr. Carmen Ana González Magaz said that from the numbers provided by the agency “we could make the obvious observation of the increase in referrals and conclude without further analysis that child abuse has increased.”

Nevertheless, González Magaz said that when comparing the available figures for 2021 with the figures presented from 2017 to 2020, “there was a decrease in received and substantiated referrals.”

“The responsible exercise is to recognize that last year’s referral numbers may not represent a true reflection of the situations of abuse on the island,” the Family chief said. “We could also affirm that circumstances have changed and the factors that previously influenced child abuse reports are gradually changing.”

“Likewise, we could affirm that awareness of the situation and the difficulties of reporting child abuse in pandemic scenarios have borne fruit and citizens are more vigilant and aware of the responsibility we all have to ensure the welfare and safety of children,” she added.

In the presentation the Family Department provided to the upper chamber committee, the agency stated that the Abuse Hotline has received 6,221 referrals and substantiated 624 so far in 2021. However, the entity received 10,874 referrals and substantiated 1,810 in 2020.

Meanwhile, the agency received 15,633 child abuse referrals and substantiated 2,582 in 2019, received 12,899 and substantiated 2,441 in 2018, and received 16,947 and substantiated 2,752 in 2017.

Last Friday, González Magaz said that when recent child abuse referral numbers from April 2021 were compared to a similar period last year, “we observed a 21.4% increase.”

“On April 6, 2021, we reported 3,727 received abuse referrals through the Department of the Family’s Abuse Hotline, compared to the 3,069 referrals received in the same period last year,” she said. “This results in 658 additional referrals [compared to last year].”

The hearing was held for Senate Resolution 157, which calls for an investigation into child abuse complaints during the public health emergency and the services provided to victims by the Family, Education and Justice departments, as well as by the Puerto Rico Police Bureau.

After the hearing, Sen. Rosamar Trujillo Plumley, who chairs the Senate Committee on Social Welfare, said the agency’s referral numbers “seemed unreal.”

“What she [González Magaz] is saying is that there was a decrease of 5,000 referrals,” the Popular Democratic Party lawmaker said. “If we have the constant promotion of the services available, what is supposed to happen is that more people should be calling; if you have less promotion, you receive fewer calls.”

“What we want from the Family Department is for the agency to have the same numbers as the Statistics Institute, the same numbers as Education, the same numbers as the feds,” she added.

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