One in four children experience some sort of neglect or abuse in their lives and one in seven have experienced abuse or neglect in the last year (American Academy of Pediatrics). In over 90% of abusive situations, a child is abused – sexually or physically – by someone they know. Abuse is often carried out by the child’s caregiver.
The current health and economic crisis induced by COVID-19 intensified several challenges for children. Loss of jobs and resources, health concerns, and isolation have led to high stress among families. Director of the Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS) Center, Debra Schneider, said, “Increased stress levels among parents is often a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children.” Stressed guardians may be more likely to respond to their child’s behavior in an aggressive way. The support systems that many at-risk parents rely on, such as extended family, childcare, schools, religious groups and other community organizations, were no longer available in many areas due to the stay-at-home orders. Child protection agencies also experienced strained resources with fewer workers available, making them unable to conduct home visits in areas with stay-at-home orders.
Schneider, said, “There has been more suspected physical abuse cases seen by the CHIPS Center in the last six months directly relating to the pandemic compared to before.” Kids are at home more under the supervision of their caregivers. Caregivers aren’t getting as much of a break because the kids are not in school.
Vulnerable situations and disasters such as the tornadoes that recently plagued central Alabama can also lead to misplaced and unsupervised children, which can then result in abusive situations.
Lack of understanding regarding child development can also lead to abuse. In instances of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, Schneider said the child is often left in the care of a family member or significant other. That person may not understand the process of child development and expects a child to do a task they cannot yet fulfill – such as walking, feeding themselves or being potty-trained. They may take out their anger on the child through a form of abuse if they cannot fulfill the task.
Signs to watch out for in victims of abuse and abusers:
There are many signs that may indicate a child is being abused. Children who are being abused might:
- Have new onset fears
- Have a vocabulary too advanced regarding sexual activity
- Be withdrawn from friends and family
- Have nightmares
- Experience a drop in their grades
- Change in appearance (wearing clothes that don’t align with the weather)
- Not want to go home
- Start using drugs
- Bully others
- Be sad or depressed
- Have stories to explain injuries that don’t make sense or keep changing
- Not want to be with the abuser
- Act out at school
There are also signs to watch out for in abusers themselves. They usually walk the victim through a grooming process. Schneider said it is important to remember that the child is usually not abused 24/7. The relationship often consists of a more positive bond. The abuser knows what the child likes, is curious about and afraid of, and they use it to their advantage. Some sort of ‘relationship’ is formed, and a trust is established between them. That way, when harm enters the picture, the child is less likely to question their character and actions. Other signs include spending more time with the child than is appropriate, giving extraordinary gifts to the child more than what’s normal, using excuses to be alone with the child and implementing gaslighting techniques. Gaslighting is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “presenting false information to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception.”
Most kids think abuse comes from a stranger, but abusers are usually someone a child knows. Schneider suggests teaching kids “stranger danger;” however, build off that concept to make them aware that abusers can be someone they know.
Steps for parents to take to prevent or stop abuse:
Parents should be aware of abusive situations and know the signs to look out for in children when they are victims of abuse. The child who has endured abuse the longest typically has the longest healing process. The quicker an abusive situation is reported, the faster a child will be removed from the situation and be provided with medical care, therapy and counseling to heal.
If an adult suspects an abusive situation, they should report it immediately. Anyone can provide an anonymous report of abuse and NOT have to prove it.
Children in an abusive situation need a trusted adult to confide in – whether that is a teacher, friend’s caregiver or guidance counselor. Schools encourage a child to tell three adults; two inside and one outside their family. That trusted adult can clearly communicate to the child, “I am here for you if anything is going on. I am not here to judge.” In some instances, the trusted adult’s child may be present for the conversation if it creates a comfortable atmosphere for the child experiencing abuse.
Adults who suspect abuse should approach the child gently. If the adult asks too many questions, the child may feel in trouble. Adults should never make promises to not tell anyone, since that is a key action to be taken when stopping abusive situations. Remind the child that abuse is NEVER their fault.
Since conversations about abuse can be very difficult to bring up, adults should consider this advice when approaching a suspected victim of abuse. Schneider suggests bringing up an incident from the news as a segue into a conversation about the abusive situation. In addition, having these conversations in the car creates a more relaxed, noninvasive environment.
The next step for adults would be to report to the local department of human resources or a child protective services agency. You can also contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). You don’t have to give your name. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911.
“Abuse is not the child’s whole story,” Schneider said. “There is hope when intervention occurs.”