Orange County’s top law enforcement officials are calling on residents to report suspected cases of child and elder abuse since institutions that normally report abuse cases, like schools and banks, are closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

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“I’m asking you today as members of the public to report abuse. I would much rather have you call and report suspicious activity and be wrong, than fail to report it and have something terrible happen to one of these members of the community,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said at a Thursday news conference. 

Sheriff deputies also have seen an increase in calls for domestic disputes, said Sheriff Don Barnes Thursday. 

“Unfortunately, the last several days and weeks have seen an increase in categories that are concerning to me. Domestic violence calls have increased 25 percent. Calls for family disputes have increased 24 percent and child custody dispute calls have increased 30 percent,” Barnes said. 

Barnes didn’t have the exact date range for the increases, but said department officials compared the call volume to a snapshot of last year during the same timeframe. 

Earlier in the month, Social Services Agency Director Debra Baetz voiced her concerns that child and elder abuse reporting was down to the agency. 

“A little bit concerning to us is that our child abuse registry has seen an approximately 44 percent decrease in calls coming into the registry. We believe that’s directly related to the fact that schools not in session and our educators are our primary mandatory reporter,” Baetz told county Supervisors at the April 7 meeting. 

Mandatory reporters are people like teachers, doctors, nurses and bank tellers who are required by law to report suspected child and elder abuse cases. 

Baetz also said elder abuse reporting calls were down 62 percent. 

Spitzer said the rise in abuse calls to the sheriff’s department is a side effect of the stay home orders. 

“One of the lessons we’re probably going to learn as a result of the stay at home orders is that we’re keeping people too close together — unfortunately who are acting out in bad ways. Specifically elder abuse and child abuse,” Spitzer said. “As I already indicated the numbers you’re seeing by the sheriff’s in terms of calls for service and other investigative leads is very, very concerning.

Spitzer said the Family Law Unit at the prosecutor’s office is still working abuse cases and investigations, but it’s challenging since the mandatory reporters aren’t seeing children or the elderly on a daily basis anymore. 

“I think that’s a big concern for everybody is what can we do proactively as opposed to waiting for calls to come in,” Spitzer said. “Your biggest fear is what you could not prevent. That’s what we lose sleep over.” 

He said it’s a difficult problem to tackle. 

“I know that I didn’t give you the hard information I wish I could. But the fact of the matter is these are still very open questions for us as a society,” Spitzer said.  

County Social Services Agency officials have been unresponsive to questions on how it’s handling the elder and child abuse cases and what can be done to increase the number of cases being investigated by the agency. 

Lead social worker Adela Cruz at the Anaheim Union High School District said their teachers have already been trained on what to specifically look for in potential child abuse cases long before the stay home orders came down from the state. 

And when the stay home orders came down, teachers and other school officials were trained to do welfare checks on the students, Cruz said. 

She said the Social Services Administration should be working closer with school districts to address the drop in suspected child abuse reporting. 

“What SSA is doing should be calling the districts and asking, ‘Hey what can I do?’” Cruz said. “I can tell you that those of us in mental health and in social services know that abuse is going to go up. Because families are in the house and tensions surface because you’re living with somebody 24/7 — it’s inevitable.” 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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