(The Center Square) – Lockdowns and stay-at-home guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic led to fewer child abuse reports, according to a fiscal year report presented to Arkansas lawmakers Friday.
But numbers are increasing again a joint meeting of the Senate Children and Youth Committee and the House Aging, Children and Youth Committee was told by Tiffany Wright, director of the Division of Children and Family Services.
“People were at home, children were at home, and so the reports weren’t there because the kids were not connected to communities and seeing teachers and being involved with what was happening out in the community,” said Wright.
She also attributed the uptick in reports to now having an online reporting option instead of just a call-in option.
Southwest Arkansas had the highest rate of child maltreatment investigations in the state at 26.95%, followed by Southeast Arkansas at 25.98%, according to Children and Family Services’ annual report.
Northwest Arkansas, which includes Benton, Carrol, Washington and Madison, had the lowest rate at 18.01% and was the only area in the state with a rate lower than 20%. The statewide rate was 21.82%, the report said.
Of the 34,162 child maltreatment reports received, 23% were found true, down from 26% last year. In total, 8,423 children were found to be victims of maltreatment, the report said. Children ages 5 and younger made up nearly half of the maltreatment victims, with the majority, 56%, being female.
The most common type of maltreatment found was neglect (68% of cases), sexual abuse (20%) and physical abuse (19%), the report said.
There were 44 maltreatment investigations involving a child fatality and 14 investigations of near-child fatalities, according to the report.
Arkansas had an 11% decrease in children in foster care, the report said. The majority of those children have been in the foster care system for at least a year.
Similarly, the state’s number of children up for adoption was its lowest, said Wright. There were 342 children awaiting adoption at the end of fiscal year 2023, down from 366 in 2022 and 420 in 2021.
Children and Family Services’ timeliness in initiating investigations dropped from 79% to 77%, according to the report. The department did a better job of initiating investigations into more serious allegations. The law requires serious allegations to be investigated within 24 hours and less serious claims of maltreatment to be investigated within 72 hours.
Other allegations that involved environmental neglect or inadequate supervision were typically handled through Differential Response, which responded to 66% of the referrals on time, the report said.