While home is the safest place to be as the coronavirus pandemic continues, many children still face health risks in their own households. Stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions are essential for COVID-19 prevention, but the increased isolation has put many kids at risk of abuse. In fact, statistics show that more than half of child sexual abuse victims are abused by a parent or relative. In this socially distanced new world, child advocacy centers can help.
With limited access to teachers, coaches, counselors, and other mandated reporters legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse, children who are suffering abuse in the home may feel hopeless and alone. The effects of child sexual abuse that occurs within a family are distinct and long-lasting. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), children who are abused by family members often have more difficulty reporting their abuse. Unaddressed abuse may lead to the continued escalation of abuse, in addition to secondary effects such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as difficulty trusting parents and guardians.
Child advocacy centers are distinctly equipped with the resources to provide a safe place for kids to tell their stories and start the healing process after abuse, including sexual abuse, by family members or close friends. Even now, we continue to work with law enforcement officers, our district attorneys’ offices, and child welfare agencies to respond to suspected child sexual abuse. However, connecting all children affected by child abuse with the life-altering resources that these centers offer is dependent on thorough and active reporting by those around them, or even themselves.
Although not all adults in Pennsylvania are mandated child abuse reporters, we can all take personal responsibility for speaking up on behalf of the children in our lives.
One way to support children while social interactions outside of the home are limited is to encourage regular on-camera check-ins or phone calls, which give adults an opportunity to identify physical changes and get a look inside of the household. In addition to physical indications such as bruising or scarring, NCTSN notes signs of child sexual abuse also include withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, and hesitancy spending time alone with particular individuals, as well as age-inappropriate sexual knowledge, language, or behaviors. These subtle reactions may be difficult to spot, but adults who have close relationships with children are best equipped to notice them.
It’s essential for us as adults to reassure the children in our lives that we are here to listen and support them. We should talk with them about personal safety, boundaries, cybersafety, and the importance of speaking out if someone makes them uncomfortable or scared. We should build trust with them and find creative ways to check in on their well-being frequently so that they feel cared for and supported.
It is also essential to empower children to use online reporting tools, which give them the opportunity to report suspected abuse anonymously online. Kids may feel more comfortable using discreet and easy-to-use online reporting tools, especially if they live in the same home as their abuser. This is especially important for children whose trust in adults has been damaged by abuse. Children and teenagers are constantly communicating with each other online and can be powerful advocates both for themselves and for their peers if equipped with the tools and confidence to speak up against abuse. While adults may not always be able to spot the signs, ensuring that kids know about the resources available to them is an invaluable step toward ensuring that victims of child abuse receive the services and justice they deserve.
If they or their peers are experiencing abuse: Kids can submit anonymous tips to Safe2Say Something at safe2saypa.org or via the Safe2Say Something PA app. Adults and children can report any suspicion of abuse to Pennsylvania’s ChildLine (800-932-0313), and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more information or help, visit keepkidssafe.pa.gov, or consider local child advocacy centers, including in Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, and the Pennsylvania Chapter of Child Advocacy Centers.
Abbie Newman is the chief executive officer of Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center. Mission Kids and all of the child advocacy centers in Southeastern Pennsylvania, listed above, are dedicated to achieving healing and justice for victims of child abuse.