SASKATOON -- The annual report from the Saskatchewan Children and Youth Advocate highlights a decrease in child abuse claims in 2020.

However, the provincial body says the deepening pandemic and the group’s inability to reach all corners of the province may have led to underreporting.

According to its report the Saskatchewan Children’s and Youth advocate said it would regularly visit with children and youth residing in group homes, foster care and in youth custody facilities, but in the year of COVID-19, many of those visits were impossible.

“Fulfilling our mandate of reviewing and influencing child-serving systems in Saskatchewan has no doubt been hindered due to the pandemic,” Lisa Broda wrote in her report.

Broda added despite the decrease in child abuse claims, there’s concern the reason for the decrease comes as a result of less children being seen directly by educational staff, social workers, doctors, community support workers and family.

Fewer opportunities to see children means less opportunities for children to access the help they need.

“Without being able to be out in the community the Advocate is deeply concerned about what might be learned once conditions allow our office to resume regular advocacy activities,” the report stated.

Broda also notes challenges were met in child protection around being able to meet confidentially, court matters delaying placement with family and community boarders being shutdown impacting face-to-face contact with vulnerable children are all contributing factors making 2020 a very challenging year.

“It is anticipated across sectors that serve children that there will be increased reporting of child abuse and neglect, ultimately revealing cases that could have otherwise been exposed,” Broda said in her report.

Unpredictable and changing school environments are also taking a toll on children and youth in the province. Broda said in many cases students haven’t been able to receive a full year of proper learning and kids struggling to get a wholesome education online and having to rely on parents and childcare centres is taking a toll.

“Interruptions to their education is definitely something that’s going to have an impact,” Broda said. “When you have school closures, academic impacts are going to be there and in the end we’re probably talking about disruption of two school years.”

The provincial children’s advocate reported 38 deaths among children, 35 of which were First Nations and Metis children. 2020 saw an increase in deaths to 21 among children zero to five years old. The report said there were six cases where children were medically fragile and passed away due to existing medical conditions. In four of the deaths to the youngest age bracket, the report notes murder and manslaughter charges were laid in connection to those deaths.

In one instance, a child was in the care of the Ministry of Social Services and a caregiver has been charged.

The Saskatchewan government said it welcomes the children’s advocate report and points to its investment on child mental health spending including $500,000 to offer mental health first-aid training to school divisions and the launch of the Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan.

The Children’s Advocate said it will continue to monitor the impact the pandemic is having on children and urges the government work on filling the gaps in education and family created by the COVID-19 pandemic.