Many of the months have some special meaning applied to them. April is no exception, only its focus is on child abuse prevention. To raise awareness on the subject, the livestreamed meeting of the Westmoreland County School Board got a visit from Elizabeth Bowen, the Family Services Supervisor for the county’s Department of Social Services. During her presentation, Bowen spoke at length on the types of abuse, and how vital teachers were in reporting it.

“Our department handles all child abuse cases in the county,” she explained.

There are many types of abuse that were laid out by Bowen, starting with physical abuse and neglect.

While the former usually has more obvious signs like bruising, the second item was a fair bit more extensive. In this case, physical neglect can be anything from ignoring the hygenic needs of a child to a lack of supervision, all the way to leaving them in the care of a registered sex offender. Neglect in this case is also the most extensive of the categories, and of late, many of their cases have held a drug component.

“Most of our referrals come in regarding that,” she continued. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a high rise in families and individuals using or abusing illegal substances or their prescription medications respectively.”

When it comes to reporting child abuse or neglect, it turns out that teachers are not the only mandated reporters around. This group, according to Bowen, includes teachers along with people over 18-years-old that are employed by someone responsible for the care of children. That means if someone connected to the school system has a suspicion that a child is being abused, they have 24 hours to take their suspicions up the chain to the DSS or the national hotline.

The other main thing Bowen brought along was a list of statistics. During the 2020 fiscal year (October 2019 to September 2020), there were 33,880 completed abuse and neglect reports. One-hundred and seventy-four of those reports came from Westmoreland County, 90 of which were accepted and investigated further. Statewide, 20.6% of those reports came from educators.

“It’s extremely important to us that we have a good working relationship with our school systems,” Bowen stated, “and it’s also important for them to know who and how to contact. I’ve been very blessed to speak to the new teachers in the system and go over abuse and how to spot and report it.”

Unfortunately, COVID has had an impact on the number of reports. This is primarily thanks to educators and their students not sharing the same room. In 2018, there were 80 reports filed by educators, and 57 in 2019. For 2020, the number of reports plummeted to 27.

“So you can see that your situation is not just impacting the children’s education, but also their safety,” she concluded. Before leaving, Chairman Ralph Fallin made sure to thank Bowen for her work.

“It’s not an easy task,” he noted, “And COVID hasn’t made it any easier.”