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Child abuse cases escalating during pandemic

By Jeanna Baxter White

Word Master Media Group

Amber’s (not her real name) step-dad had been touching her at night.

The middle-schooler reported that “he had done some stuff to her that she didn’t want,” but it wasn’t until she went back to school in August that she was able to tell a teacher who reported the situation to law enforcement.

Amber is just one of the 369 children devastated by the effects of sexual abuse, child abuse, or severe neglect that The Dragonfly House Children’s Advocacy Center saw in 2020, according to Executive Director Brandi Reagan.

Cases like this are on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic, magnifying triggers of abuse like increased poverty, food insecurity, financial hardships, and unrelenting stress.

She shared that national research indicates:

• Increases in child maltreatment are directly related to poverty, food insecurity, and financial hardships, all of which have risen sharply.

• Unemployed parents are four times more likely to neglect their children and twice as likely to physically abuse them.

• Parents with the lowest socio-economic statuses are seven times more likely to neglect their children and three times more likely to physically abuse them.

• Food insecurity has a direct relationship to in-person education in that many families rely on school meals to feed their children.

• During the pandemic, nearly one- third of parents self-reported clinically meaningful symptoms of anxiety and depression.

• Many parents are unable to cope with parenting under the mental health strains of isolation from extra-familial supports.

“It is a heartbreaking fact that not every child is safe at home and not every home is equipped to support kids,” Reagan said.

“Our agency has seen an increase of 31.5 percent in cases at the center in a four-month period (August-December) over 2019 and 2018. This number would be larger except there aren’t enough hours in the day, days in the week, or funding to double our staff, to allow us to see more clients. We added extra appointment days, implemented a new process for emergencies, and eliminated seeing cases from outside of Davie and Davidson counties.  Prior to this pandemic we were seeing kids from Yadkin, Surry, and Stokes counties because they do not have a center and our caseload accommodated seeing those referrals,” said Reagan. “Since in-person school resumed we’ve seen double what we normally do, and I think that’s a direct reflection of the coronavirus.

“This is truly just the tip of the iceberg because kids are still not in a place to disclose abuse. Most kids don’t initially disclose abuse, the signs and symptoms are identified by trained adults, particularly teachers, who approach the child and ask, or have enough concern to make a report anyway.”

COVID-19 has created the perfect storm. Although cases of abuse have escalated, investigations have been delayed and prosecutions have come to a screeching halt because courts are closed. There have been no trials in Davie or Davidson since March.

Hannah Whittington, detective corporal with the Davie County Sheriff’s Office assigned to crimes against person/child crimes, and a member of The Dragonfly House Board of Directors, explained what that means.

“One of the biggest problems we are facing right now is the absolute influx of cases. Children left with anyone, under whatever means necessary so that parents can find a way to work has resulted in an entire nation of children who have been left subject to an abuser. At first, things seemed to stay steady. However, in recent months, as COVID has continued to shake and rattle the way we operate as a society, it’s finally hit. The storm we were anticipating, the monsoon, is coming to shore. There are so many children who need immediate help, and there aren’t enough of us to provide it. It’s not the normal cases either, the occasional mom that may have disciplined a little too hard, so Johnny came to school with a red mark on his bottom. It’s horrible beatings because parents are frustrated and burned out, it’s repetitive, brutal rapes because Susie was left with the uncle who no one really wanted to leave her with, but they didn’t have another option. It’s children being neglected and abused because even adults are in a world they’ve never experienced, and no one knows what to do.

“These cases always take a while to investigate because you have to be meticulous and thorough. But when you get a case, and you must wait two weeks for your victim’s forensic services, two weeks because an outside partner agency has been affected, two weeks because the courthouses have been closed, two weeks because a key witness has been affected, and two more weeks because the offender has been affected, months and months can go by before you can make a case decision. Then you finally arrest your offender, but they get released without bond because they must keep as many people out of the jails as possible due to COVID. This is no one’s fault but it’s the cards being dealt right now.

“Imagine having to look a victim and their parent in the eyes and tell them that their child’s rapist is going to walk the streets free for the foreseeable future. Try telling a child that is being abused at home that there is nothing that can be done right now because your hands are tied with roadblocks none of us could prepare for. We need solutions. I’m not sure what they are but we have to start somewhere.”

“Since COVID began, it seems like every child who comes in is being referred for therapy because they’re just in crisis,” Reagan said. “That crisis may be directly related to the abuse or may just be because their family is in crisis. When you have parents with mental health needs that aren’t being met in a home with kids who have mental health needs that aren’t being met, you have a dangerous scenario of kids who need immediate therapy services, and it’s hard to get them in right away because there are so many referrals and so many kids in need,” said Reagan.

“Disturbing trends have emerged that many professionals in the field of child abuse and neglect are concerned about. These trends are only going to get worse for our community, leading to a child abuse and mental health crisis we are not prepared to handle. We need to begin the conversation with each other about what we see now, what we know is coming, and what we as a community can do to prepare for the impact of this crisis.”

She urges everyone to join The Dragonfly House, along with its partners from law enforcement, social services, health department, and others for a virtual “town hall-style” conversation on Tuesday, Jan. 26 at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will kick off with updates from the partner agencies followed by the opportunity for community members to share what they are seeing and experiencing.

“I encourage every member of our Davie and Davidson County communities to join this conversation,” said Reagan. “Coming together for an honest and open conversation about the child abuse and mental health concerns that lie ahead is the best thing that we can do now to help our children face a brighter future.”

Visit https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7054863939681073166.to register and for more details.