More than 11,600 children in Alabama were victims of abuse in 2020, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. However, the actual number may be higher because many instances of abuse go unreported. The support systems on which many families rely, such as extended family, childcare, schools, religious groups and other community organizations, were limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As families continue to face health and economic strains connected to the pandemic, stressed guardians may be more likely to respond to their child’s behavior in an aggressive way. “Increased stress levels among parents is often a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children,” said Debra Schneider, director of the Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS) Center at Children’s of Alabama.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, but CHIPS staff works year-round to facilitate healing from physical, mental and emotional abuse and to provide prevention education.
Parents and caregivers should look for signs of abusive situations. 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 can be provided with medical care, therapy and counseling to heal. “Abuse is not the child’s whole story,” Schneider said. “There is hope when intervention occurs.”
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• Be withdrawn from friends and family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.
Most children think abuse comes from a stranger, but abusers are usually someone a child knows. Schneider suggests teaching about “stranger danger;” however, build off that concept to make them aware that abusers can be someone they know. Schneider states most children are taught about stranger danger, but children need to be taught that most sexual abuse happens with someone a child knows.
Children in an abusive situation need a trusted adult to confide in – parents, grandparents, a teacher, friend’s parent/caregiver or guidance counselor. School prevention education programs 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.”
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, 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.
If you suspect an abusive situation, report it immediately. Anyone can provide a report of suspected abuse to report to the local department of human resources or a child protective services agency. All it takes is a suspicion of abuse; the caller doesn’t have to have specific evidence. 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.
CHIPS staff is a team of specially trained counselors, doctors, social workers and pediatric sexual assault nurse examiners (PSANE). The staff works with law enforcement, the Department of Human Resources and child advocacy center representatives to provide the best possible care for children and families affected by child maltreatment. Services provided include forensic medical evaluations, social work assessments, play therapy, counseling, care coordination, prevention education, court support, expert court testimony and specialized support for victims of human trafficking. For more information, call 205-638-2751 or visit childrensal.org/CHIPS.