Quarantined child sexual abuse survivors need help


As we adjust to an indefinite period of indoor living due to the COVID-19 crisis, the inconvenience of being unable to do the simple things we once took for granted is already being felt.

For children forced to shelter in place with their sexual abusers, it is a daily nightmare. 

One of the most important weapons in the fight to stop child sexual abuse is informed, bystanders. Those who have the courage to take action when they see or sense something is wrong. Teachers, extended family members or close family friends are often the ones who spot the warning signs first. Now, these allies are confined to their homes, sidelined from the front lines of a different kind of epidemic, one that will impact one in ten children before his or her 18th birthday.  

The statistics are difficult to write as they are to read: 30 percent of sexually abused children are harmed by family members. And the younger a child is, the higher the likelihood a family member is involved. For children under six years old, 50 percent of abusers are family members. 23 percent of abusers of children between the ages of 12 and 17 are family members, and 60 percent of children who are abused are preyed on by someone the family trusts.

These child survivors are in desperate need of advocates now more than ever before. As we move indoors to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, children abused by family members are trapped and have nowhere to go. Their predators have free and unfettered opportunity to abuse them.

No one is nearby to govern their behavior. No one is there to question if that hug or caress a family member gave a child living inside the home lasted a little too long or violated any boundaries. No outside eyes are there to observe whether anything seems out of the ordinary. 

But there’s an unlikely army in today’s battle against the coronavirus that might help these children: delivery and postal workers. These courageous men and women are providing critical services as we remove ourselves from the social view for the foreseeable future. They are the only ones visiting homes during this unprecedented time around the world.

While their duration at each location is brief, there is a possibility they may observe something if they know what to look for. As employers of hotel workers and flight attendants increasingly train their workforce to be on the lookout for signs of human trafficking, these brave workers could be a similar lifeline to neglected or sexually abused children. Employer training in identifying the signs of abuse and neglect by companies such as UPS, Amazon, Walmart and Fed-Ex, among many others, would be a worthy endeavor. 

Adult victims of domestic violence are in the same situation. They can’t escape their abusers as more and more states implement mandatory to stay at home orders across the country.

Fortunately, some members of Congress are doing something about it. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently urged the Trump administration to continue funding for domestic violence programs throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Now we need the same level of support and congressional activism for survivors of child sexual abuse. 

We must run toward this problem if we are to make a difference. We must confront it and destigmatize it before we can have an honest conversation about how we can prevent it. That means accepting the ugly truth that a notable percentage of child sexual abuse happens inside the home by family members. These children need our help right now. 

Lyndon Haviland is a distinguished scholar at the City University of New York School of Public Health & Health Policy. She is the former CEO of Darkness to Light, a group committed to the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Tags Child abuse Child sexual abuse Domestic violence Human sexuality Humans Kirsten Gillibrand Sexual abuse Violence

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