Nearly 700,000 children are abused and neglected in the U.S. each year. With family discord at an all-time high due to overall instability, one could’ve predicted child abuse and neglect reports to spike.
According to the National Children’s Alliance, however, children advocacy centers (CACs) have seen 40,000 fewer children nationwide between January and June of this year compared to last year, a staggering 21 percent plummet.
“Statistics tell us that 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday, and in some communities, that rate is much higher,” said Michele Booth Cole, J.D., executive director of Safe Shores, a D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center in northwest D.C. “We believe the number of children who are brought to Safe Shores is the tip of the iceberg,”
The National Children’s Alliance states that in the District, the drop was smaller — only 3 percent because social isolation is more difficult for children living in a city than in more rural areas of the country.
Social isolation for children heightened the risk of child abuse going unreported due to school closures. According to federal data, educators were responsible for 21 percent of the 4.3 million referrals made to child protective services in 2018.
“Some children are in greater danger due to the social isolation since the traditional mandated reporting system designed to keep them from harm has been largely disabled,” says Cole.
Also, virtual teaching 25 to 30 students decreases the ability to detect abnormal behavior in one child. Some school districts have sought to train staff on how to spot potential signs of abuse on-line.
“There are strategies and safeguards that can be put in place even with on-line learning,” informs Cole.” Our school systems must support teachers by quickly equipping them with the skills and tech tools to spot and report abuse and to allow children to be able to indicate they need help in ways that don’t place them in further danger. The delivery of academic content, frankly, is secondary at this point to students’ safety and wellbeing.”
Nationally, neglect is the most common form of abuse. Neglect in some cases includes a parent napping while children under the age of 8 are playing. Proper child supervision requires full responsiveness and presence, according to the law.
Children must not be left alone in situations where they may get hurt. Neglect is considered a misdemeanor, and the parent or guardian is subject to a fine or 30 days in prison.
“People fear that reporting child abuse or neglect will fall back on them or break up the family. The truth is that getting help can protect children from further harm and assist the family in overcoming problems,” states Rudy Davis, an adult victim of child abuse and raised in foster care.
In fiscal 2019, Safe Shores saw 1,529 children and their families. In 90 percent of these cases, the children know their abuser, who is frequently a trusted adult.
“Consider what it might feel like for a child to have her life turned upside down by violence and betrayal, having her reality shattered by someone, perhaps someone she knows,” according to Cole.
For more than two decades, Safe Shores has been on the front lines, providing intervention, hope, and healing for children and families affected by abuse, trauma, and violence as the only CAC in D.C. The pandemic and issues with the air conditioning in their building have caused a decrease in service opportunities, worrisome because the center is saving lives.
“Interestingly, in some regards, remote services have made Safe Shores more accessible to many of our clients because transportation is not an issue,” says Cole.
Child abuse is deadly. In 2018, an estimated 1,770 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States.
It’s paramount that the community has access to CACs as they help more than 350,000 children each year. In 2019, they offered 210,113 children science-backed counseling and therapy services to help them recover from trauma and avoid the lifelong impacts of trauma.
Children with problem sexual behaviors get help at CACs. Treatments offered for children and youth with problematic sexual behaviors are successful. They also educate more than 2 million people each year, helping prevent abuse.
Safe Shores does not work alone. They serve as the hub of a team of public and private partners that includes D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency, Children’s National Health Center, the Metropolitan Police Department, the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C.
Safe Shores continues to do all they can during the pandemic to provide quality service to child victims by quickly shifting to teleforensic interviewing, telehealth programs and contacting their families through virtual platforms like Zoom.
Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have historically caused devastating havoc in children’s lives, like how this pandemic will for years to come, Cole said.
“We need to have a full-scale plan to address the compounded trauma that children are experiencing as a result of this pandemic — knowing that trauma shows up differently in each child and therefore having a tailored, clinically sound and culturally-sensitive response to offer each child for their healing,” Cole said. “We need to be mindful that a child can heal, But it requires intentionality and will on the part of adults and resources to do the work of healing well and fully.”
The District’s Child and Family Service Agency takes reports of child abuse and neglect 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 202-671-SAFE. The hotline is to protect and get help for child victims and those at risk. Laws are in place that require mandatory reporting for health practitioners, police officers, educators, and human service workers. A regular citizen may also call 911 and Marylanders may call Child Protective Services at 410-361-2235.