The coronavirus pandemic — abused children are invisible

The coronavirus pandemic — abused children are invisible
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For weeks now, we’ve been urged to stay home for our safety and the safety of others. But unfortunately, for a disturbing number of children, home is not a safe haven.

In March, as more cities and states instituted restrictions related to the novel coronavirus that had begun sweeping the globe, RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, began closely monitoring data from online chat sessions on the National Sexual Assault Hotline to understand concerns related to COVID-19.

The first trend that stood out was an uptick in the proportion of minors using our online hotline service. Since March 1, for the first time ever, minors have accounted for a majority of victims using the hotline.

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This leap came at the same time states were reporting declines in official reports of child abuse. While on the surface that sounds like a good thing, it’s misleading. Under shelter-in-place mandates, children have lost access to the safety net they rely on for relief. Adults outside of the family, such as teachers, school administrators, childcare providers and parents of friends, are generally the first people to spot and report signs of suspected abuse. Without daily contact with these adults — or anyone outside the home — kids are vulnerable to someone in the home who wishes to do them harm.

A deeper look at our hotline data revealed that the coronavirus has dramatically heightened minors’ fears for their safety. Of minors who discussed concerns related to the pandemic, two-thirds identified their perpetrator as a family member and 79 percent said they were living with that perpetrator. Sixty percent discussed safety concerns regarding self-isolation or quarantine. 

Other concerns included difficulty accessing services due to shut downs and complications in the reporting process. In one out of every five sessions in which the minor was living with the perpetrator, they relied on RAINN’s staff to support them in contacting police during the session. 

Children who are sexually abused often live life in the shadows; the COVID-19 pandemic is making them all but invisible to the system.

While federal, state and local officials are balancing a host of critical needs, we cannot let these children be forgotten. Officials must ensure reporting mechanisms are in place and the safety of children remains a priority for authorities during this time.

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Specifically, we urge governors to direct their state departments of education to require the addition of a reporting function (via voice, online chat, email, or other technology, based on the capacity of each state) into their online learning platforms for children to report abuse to their state child abuse hotline. Teachers should also be directed to remind children they can receive reports over email from those who need help. We’re asking congressional negotiators to include funds in the next stimulus package for states to integrate these reporting functions into their learning platforms.

Under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, states must implement a plan to respond to and prevent child abuse. If states do not yet have a disaster response plan that includes identifying and responding to reports of child sexual abuse, then officials should be directed to revise the plan to adequately respond to these reports during the current crisis. We also urge states to establish online telehealth services as part of their safety planning for abused children and to ensure priority for the placement of children who are abused with non-offending, protective parents or relatives, as foster care systems in many states are overburdened or disrupted at this time.

Resources like the National Sexual Assault Hotline are one of the few places these children have to turn for support, both during the crisis and in its aftermath. In a recent letter to congressional leaders of both parties, the National Hotline Consortium — a coalition of national hotlines providing services for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, suicide, runaway and homeless youth, tribes, child abuse and human trafficking — expressed increasing alarm at the impact COVID-19 is having on vulnerable populations. The consortium is asking Congress to prioritize support for national hotlines, which face increased demand for services as a result of the loss of many in-person resources for survivors.

The COVID-19 pandemic is claiming more than just lives — it’s claiming children’s innocence. We must do all we can to shine a light on this epidemic and make sure they know they are not alone.

Scott Berkowitz is the founder and president of RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and operates programs to prevent sexual assault and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.