- Data collected by the National Children’s Alliance shows that 40,000 fewer child abuse victims have been treated this year over last.
- Child advocacy centers usually see a 3 to 4% growth in cases, so the 20% drop indicates child abuse is going unreported at exceptionally high rates.
- A majority of child abuse victims are harmed by someone who lives in their home with them and the pandemic has kept kids trapped where they are most vulnerable.
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Every six months, nearly 200,000 child abuse victims are cared for by child advocacy centers around the United States. During the pandemic, the number of cases has dropped off 20%, according to National Children’s Alliance data shared with Insider.
The sharp decrease in children being served — about 40,000 fewer than last year — isn’t because the kids are going unharmed, but rather because their stories aren’t being disclosed to people who can help them, Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, told Insider.
“I am really terrible worried about those 40,000 kids,” Huizar said. “We have every reason to statistically believe that they have been abused, but we don’t know who they are and so we don’t know how we can help.”
A majority of child abuse victims are abused by an adult who lives in their home. The pandemic has trapped many potential victims in places where they are the most vulnerable.
Since March, children have been increasingly confined to their homes. Most of their interactions outside their immediate households have been virtual, leaving them with fewer windows to share whether they’ve been harmed.
When children do disclose their abuse, it tends to be to adults they trust in school or in extra curricular activities. But when those activities are taking place online, there aren’t the quiet moments in between instruction when mandated reporters and victims have a chance to talk.
“Kids weren’t disclosing in the middle of math class. They weren’t interrupting art class to raise their hand and say they were sexually abused,” Huizar said. “It’s these moments of privacy where kids disclosed.”
It takes a village to keep children safe
For years, the annual number of cases seen at child advocacy centers has been rising 3% to 4% annually. That the cases have dropped so significantly is frightening for those who work with abused children.
While some schools are reopening to in-class instruction this fall, many will remain virtual or at least have a delayed opening. After school activities will also be limited.
For this reason, the National Children’s Alliance expects to see a pattern of kids who aren’t getting the help they need.
“There will be this sort of backlog of pain and suffering to deal with when schools do reopen in person and kids do have more contact with mandated reporters,” Huizar said.
The alliance is already hearing about examples of this.
On Wednesday night, after an initial report about the data was published, Huizar’s former teacher called her from a Texas school. The woman, still a teacher, told Huizar that on the first day back to class, a student had disclosed they were raped during the pandemic.
“So the minute, they got to a safe place, they disclosed,” Huizar said.
For the National Children’s Alliance, it’s important to get the message out that during these unusual times members communities have to be especially vigilant at stepping in to spot possible child abuse happening around them.
In many cases of child abuse, people in the community suspect that the victim is being harmed but don’t report it themselves because they worry it will make the situation worse, Huizar said.
That’s the wrong way to go about it, according to Huizar.
Community members don’t have to be 100% sure that what they think is happening is really happening before alerting a professional whose job it is to suss out the truth, she said.
Those who need someone to talk through whether or not to report a situation can also contact their local child advocacy center.
“Right now, this is the time for friends and family and neighbors to be as brave as the kids that were asking to disclose,” she said. “If you suspect that, turn it over to professionals who are absolutely able to suss out whether it’s the normal pressures of COVID that’s causing the yelling next door, or if it’s something truly abusive and traumatic going on.”
Despite the barriers for children to disclose their stories during the pandemic, more than 152,000 children have been served at child advocacy centers between January and June. Many of these reports cane from extended family, like grandmothers, aunts, and other family members.
Those who worked at the centers ensured that they were accessible, even when it meant putting themselves at risk, Huizar said.
“If you think about it, a kid who discloses right now, they’re going to be at home every day and they have to trust that the professional is going to do what they say they will,” Huizar said. “I am just constantly floored by the bravery the kids have and I think it also tells you the level of desperation out there.”