Child sexual abuse: The hidden pandemic we must confront

Child sexual abuse: The hidden pandemic we must confront
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In an effort to reopen schools, President Trump, top White House health officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called attention to growing concerns of child abuse. While we must not rush to reopen schools, lockdowns can raise the risk of abuse. With the Senate currently debating a new coronavirus relief package, policymakers can tackle this problem by authorizing funding for child abuse prevention and support.

Tens of thousands of children fall victim to sexual abuse and exploitation in the U.S. every year — in their homes, communities and online. This violence has been fueled for centuries by silence, poverty, racism, gender inequality and the systematic disenfranchisement of vulnerable populations. And this year, COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for unprecedented levels of abuse by trapping children at home with their abusers, driving the problem underground.

We will be living with the impacts of COVID-19 for months or years to come, and we must take action to keep kids safe while we stop the spread of COVID-19: Congress should provide at least $300 million to fight child abuse and support victims in the new coronavirus relief package. 

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Emerging data reflects a hidden pandemic of abuse. Though reports of child abuse are down, it is because victims have been locked away from the caring adults in their lives: their doctors, teachers, child protective services and advocates who would typically identify this behavior. Acts of severe child abuse reported by emergency room doctors and pediatricians are on the rise, along with reports from children to abuse hotlines. In April, RAINN announced that for the first time in its 25-year history, half of all reports to the National Sexual Assault Hotline were made by minors

As a result of COVID-19, children are also spending an unprecedented amount of time online, increasing their exposure to sexual abuse and exploitation. Child sex abuse livestreams are increasing. Predators have been using the dark web to discuss how they can exploit lockdowns to produce and share more child sexual abuse material. Reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cyber tip line doubled in the last two months.

We all have a role to play in stopping this horror. We must ensure that the online world is safe for kids – so they can learn, play and connect. And with states reopening and social distancing measures relaxed, victims of child abuse — both boys and girls — will be rejoining society. They will bear the marks of abuse — not only physical bruises, but the trauma, shame and long-term consequences that accompany sexual abuse. You can make a difference by paying attention to the children in your neighborhoods, grocery stores, restaurants, parks and beaches. Signs of abuse should be treated seriously and reported to the national hotline

You can also add your voice to a growing advocacy movement to tackle this problem at scale. More than 40 organizations and adult survivors of child sexual abuse have joined forces under the Keep Kids Safe alliance to urge Congress to provide significant emergency funding for child safety and protection programs in the next COVID-19 economic relief package.

Community groups, public authorities and abuse support networks urgently need resources to provide the prevention, healing and justice services that stop abuse and save lives. These groups were already underfunded before COVID-19 struck. They are now emerging from three months of lockdown — and a near-total dislocation from victims and their routine support activities — to face an unprecedented surge of abuse.

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Without adequate emergency funding — for online technologies and training that prioritize safety, expansion of helplines and shelters and personal protection equipment for professionals in the field — psychologists, social workers and counselors can’t effectively protect children in the midst of our national health crisis.

We also know that Black and Indigenous communities have traditionally faced significant barriers in accessing a variety of critical services focused on prevention, healing and justice to end child sexual violence. We must redouble our efforts to ensure these systems are working effectively for the most marginalized.

Grassroots organizations at the frontlines of protecting children need more resources, too. These groups serve diverse ethnic and religious communities in multiple languages, providing trauma-informed care for survivors and support for professionals who protect our communities’ most vulnerable children.

As a mother of two, I know how important it is for kids to be in school. And as a survivor of child sexual abuse, I understand the nightmare that many children are living today. While local authorities determine whether and how to reopen schools in the fall, we can take steps to protect children from COVID-19 and sexual abuse right now. Congress must include measures in the new relief package to protect children — the future of our great nation. 

Working together, we can confront — and end — the hidden pandemic of child abuse in America.

Dr. Daniela Ligiero is CEO of Together for Girls, a public-private partnership dedicated to ending violence against children. Follow her on Twitter: @DanielaLigiero. Follow the organization on Twitter: @together4girls.