A nationwide network of centers that care for victims of child abuse has served roughly 40,000 fewer children this year compared with last, suggesting abuse is going underreported amid the coronavirus pandemic, child safety advocates say.
National Children’s Alliance, an accrediting body for more than 900 children’s advocacy centers (CACs) across the country, recorded the drop in a survey first reported by The Washington Post on Thursday.
The centers, which investigate instances of child abuse and provide resources for the victims and affected families, have seen a 21% drop in cases this year, with 152,016 children served between January and June. The centers served 192,367 children during the same time period last year, the survey reported.
The NCA said it typically expects a 3%-5% increase in children served each year due to population growth and new CACs opening up, which makes the 21% drop especially alarming.
Child abuse experts suspected abuse reports would significantly decrease during the pandemic as schools moved to virtual instruction and doctor visits became more restricted as part of efforts to curb contagion. NCA’s new survey confirms those grim predictions.
“It really did exemplify our worst fears, which is that kids are home and that they were outside the view line in many cases of trusted adults and teachers and counselors and coaches and physicians ― all the folks who normally are making reports as mandated reporters,” NCA Executive Director Teresa Huizar told HuffPost.
“Every year we have more kids served than the year before,” Huizar said. “Generally, we would have expected to see between 190,000 and 200,000 kids served in that period of time. Instead, the data came back with a drop of 40,000.”
She added, “It’s not that 40,000 kids were not abused at all. There’s no reason to believe that’s the case.”
As the Post noted, educators reported 21% of the 4.3 million child abuse reports made to child protective services in 2018, federal data shows.
With many classes set to be taught virtually in the fall, Huizar predicted the trend of decreased child abuse reports will continue for several more months. Virtual instruction typically lacks the opportunity for private time for victims to come forward to their teachers.
“When you think about how kids disclose abuse to trusted adults, it’s the kid coming in a few minutes before class, it’s the kid who pulls someone aside in the hallways to disclose,” Huizar said.
The pandemic has shown how much society is relying on school districts to ensure that a child is safe at home from abuse, neglect and other issues such as food insecurity, said Ellen Smith, a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin’s school of social work.
“That is something that this pandemic has been shining a light on: How much schools are being asked to mitigate,” she said.
One of the biggest concerns about this lack of reporting is that children could end up severely injured or die from abuse before child protective services can intervene, Smith said.
Those who do survive abuse could suffer longterm impacts from it. These victims face higher rates of poverty and incarceration and are more likely to develop physical ailments, including diabetes and obesity.
“It’s very traumatic for kids,” Smith said. “It can create lifelong relationship problems. When kids are being abused or neglected, oftentimes they don’t have the energy to learn and so there are educational outcomes. Kids are not able to pay attention in class because they’re worried about their well-being.”
With many schools closed to in-person instruction, it’s incumbent upon communities and neighbors to stay vigilant and report suspected abuse, Huizar said. Those unsure how and whether they should report a concern can contact one of the more than 900 CACs listed on the NCA’s website for help.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
If you’re a teenager who has run away from home or a teenager who is thinking of running from home, or if you know somebody who is, visit the National Runaway Switchboard or call 1-800-RUNAWAY.
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