ST. JOSEPH — Authorities have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of child abuse cases being reported, but they aren’t viewing it as good news.

Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic and Jamie Rossow, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southwest Michigan, say they suspect that child abuse is actually up and is just not being reported. They said this is occurring not just locally but all across the country.

Sepic and Rossow said in a joint news release Friday that they suspect stress and isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic has likely increased instances of child abuse and, for some children, has created a dangerous environment. Many reports of suspected abuse come from school officials, and schools have not been in session since March.

Although anyone is allowed to report suspected child abuse or neglect, some people are required to by law. The Michigan Child Protection Law requires that doctors, nurses, other medical providers including audiologists and dentists, social workers, counselors and therapists, Friend of the Court employees, school administrators, counselors and teachers, child care providers, police and members of the clergy are among those who are required to report suspicions of abuse.

Sepic and Rossow said mandated reporters are an essential part of the child protection system because they have an enhanced ability, through their expertise and direct contact with children, to identify suspected child abuse and neglect. Reports made by mandated reporters are confirmed at nearly double the rate of those made by non-mandated reporters, they said.

There are civil and criminal penalties for a mandated reporter’s failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Michigan Department for Health & Human Services. Likewise, there is a civil and criminal immunity for someone who, in good faith, makes a report that cannot be substantiated.

The information in a Children’s Protective Services report must be provided by the person who actually has observed the injuries or had contact with the child, and this cannot be delegated to another person.

Rossow said as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, online communication has become the primary method of contact for people who work with children, and abuse can be recognized virtually and still must be reported, even if the mandated reporter has not had face-to-face contact with the alleged victim.

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Southwest Michigan offers several abuse awareness, prevention, and reporting trainings to professionals and the community at no cost. For more information, contact Prevention and Outreach Specialist, Allie Kibler-Campbell, at akiblercampbell@swmichigancac.org or 556-9640.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter @HPSwidwa