TRENTON — Teachers would be trained specifically on how to spot child abuse and neglect over remote-learning platforms, and the public would have more information on how to report suspected instances of child maltreatment, under a proposed law introduced in the Legislature.

Legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, D-Essex, aims to combat child abuse and neglect during a public health crisis, including the current COVID-19 emergency.

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"Many predicted a drop in reporting of child abuse and neglect cases due to quarantine restrictions, less frequent emergency room visits, and limited access to their teachers and counselors," Speight said. "There may be no way to confirm a rise in cases while currently in a public health crisis; however, from the work I do each day as a sheriff's officer, I am very sure child abuse and neglect cases are still occurring and are underreported as a result of the pandemic."

Included in Speight's bill is a requirement of the Department of Children and Families to issue a report about child abuse reports during the pandemic, and how the numbers compare to pre-pandemic days.

According to Speight, children are "most vulnerable" during public health disasters and emergencies — physical, financial and emotional stress in the home can contribute to acts of violence and neglect.

"We do have bad actors out there that are actually abusing these children ... and we want to make sure that they are held accountable," Speight said.

But, Speight noted, the overall purpose of the legislation is not to tear kids away from their families.

Under the measure, every school district would have to implement a training program for employees on the detection and prevention of child abuse during a public health emergency. Right now, through remote learning, Speight said, teachers may have a harder time spotting "red flags."

DCF along with the Department of Education would also be required to establish a public awareness campaign to inform the public about the issue. The bill would require that rules and procedures publicize DCF's State Central Registry, and would allow for some duties of child protective investigators to be performed remotely during a public health emergency.

In New Jersey, DCF says on its website, any person having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or acts of abuse should immediately report the information to the State Central Registry. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911 as well as 1-877 NJ ABUSE. DCF notes a concerned caller does not need proof to report an allegation of child abuse and can make the report anonymously.

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