Child abuse risk remains concern amid continued COVID financial, social strain

kieferpix/iStockBy MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — In April, a month after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reported that, for the first time, half of the victims receiving help from its National Sexual Assault Hotline were minors.

Eight months later, the anti-sexual violence organization is still finding that to be the case.

“We are seeing a lot of what we saw in the spring,” RAINN President Scott Berkowitz told ABC News this month. In fall 2019, about 40% of hotline users were minors; since the spring, that number has consistently been around 53%, Berkowitz said.

At the same time, reports of child abuse and neglect to state agencies and interventions by child advocacy centers have declined.

A recent report by the National Children’s Alliance, which represents a national network of 900 children’s advocacy centers, found that the centers helped some 33,000 fewer children in the first half of the year than they did over the same period last year — a 17% drop — the organization told ABC News.

“We have every reason to believe that those kids are still out there, that they still need service, and we simply haven’t been able to identify them to this point,” Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, told ABC News.

Most abusers tend to be an immediate family member, according to the alliance. During the pandemic, children have lost access to people outside the home — such as a teacher, doctor or friend’s parent — who could report possible physical abuse or neglect. Instead, they may turn to a service like RAINN’s hotline, which could be helping to fill the gap, or go unhelped, which child abuse prevention advocates like Huizar have feared to be the case.

The National Children’s Alliance says it plans to follow up on data from children’s advocacy centers to see how many children they served in the second half of the year. Though “we really have no reason to think that it will be very much different” from the first half, Huizar said, as many students have continued to learn remotely and surging COVID-19 cases have renewed stay-at-home orders.

The pandemic has continued to put some children at an increased risk of abuse, Huizar said. Not only have they had less contact with people they could turn to during this time, families have endured financial stress for months on end. The boosted $600 in federal unemployment insurance ran out in late July, and several pandemic relief programs are set to expire at the end of the year.

“Families that might not have been in immediate crisis at the beginning of the pandemic then came into crisis,” Huizar said. “As those circumstances worsen, we know from research that the more economic stressors there are in a family, the more likelihood that we are increasing the possibility of domestic violence and physical abuse.”

A lack of social support is another stressor that may increase the risk of child abuse, Lisa Specter-Dunaway, the CEO and president of Families Forward Virginia, a Richmond-based nonprofit that provides services to help disrupt cycles of child abuse, neglect and poverty, told ABC News.

“Having access to high-quality care is a child abuse prevention strategy,” she said, though the pandemic “has underscored the fragility of the child care system.”

One in four child care centers and one in three child care homes say that if enrollment stays the same and no additional financial support comes forward, they will have to close in the next three months, according to a survey released last week by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. There is an emergency need for $50 billion to stabilize and support the sector, the organization said, as funding from the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program and other sources runs out.

After months of stalled negotiations, congressional leaders Friday night were still working out a nearly $900 billion COVID-19 relief deal that could include child care funding, as well as a second round of stimulus checks for lower-income Americans.

Over the past nine months, service providers have adapted to help reach children and offer support.

Children’s advocacy centers have moved the mandatory reporter training they offer to teachers online to continue to teach educators the signs of abuse and neglect. Some have also worked with schools to include safety messaging in homework packages and do unintrusive welfare checks on families such as through pizza dropoffs, Huizar said.

Families Forward Virginia’s programs have held home visits virtually or socially-distanced on porches and in playgrounds. Teachers have also conducted online polls to gauge how children are feeling, Specter-Dunaway said. Though if children don’t have consistent internet access, they could be missed.

“There are a lot of organizations that are conscious of it and are doing everything they can,” Berkowitz said. “But it’s so hard to have direct access to kids.”

In July, RAINN launched a new app, through which users can access its National Sexual Assault Hotline. It has also brought on 30 additional hotline staffers to keep up with demand.

The full impact of the pandemic on incidences of child abuse remains to be seen, though Berkowitz is sure of one thing.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more ongoing assaults,” he said. “In a different world they might have been able to get help early; this year, they’re going to suffer for a longer period.”

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