Social distancing and isolation have been important safety tactics during the COVID-19 pandemic the last few weeks. As a result, the country-wide effort to stay home remains our best chance to flatten the curve and prevent more people from getting sick. Still, staying at home can have a severe — and potentially deadly — downside for children who live with abusive parents or guardians.
The U.S. is now seeing a serious rise in domestic violence and abuse affecting families and households with children — including emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and being witness to intimate partner violence. According to the most recent reports from the Children's Bureau, of the nearly 3,534,000 million children who were the subject of “an investigation or alternative response,” at least 678,000 children were victims of child abuse in the United States in the 2018 fiscal year alone. Ultimately, over 60% of victims were neglected by guardians at home, left to fend for themselves, 10% were physically abused, and 7% were sexually abused.
According to Daphne Young, the Chief Communications Officer of ChildHelp, the pandemic may only spur further at-home abuse. "These numbers are going to continue rising with everything going on," she said in an interview with Refinery29.
ChildHelp — oldest and longest running national treatment nonprofit for child abuse, prevention and treatment — notes that approximately five children dying every day as a result of violence or emotional abuse. As a leading hotline for victims and survivors of child abuse, the company says they are seeing a 31% increase in calls, texts, and chats from victims since the pandemic started. The organisation has even created a Coronavirus Task Force that meets each day to address the issues surrounding child abuse during times when people are isolated in their homes. "We have kids trapped at home with abusers, we have survivors calling late at night because they feel trapped with old memories of abuse they can't escape," Young said.
Why is all of this happening now? According to Young, several variables are contributing to the serious spike in child abuse and domestic violence cases right now. Part of this, she said, has to do with the deterioration of social safety nets, along with the economic crisis that many adults living with children could be facing. "There's that stress building with parents who have cycles of abuse who are now stressed and taking it out on kids," she said. "You have parents and kids in close proximity for days on end, who have never had issues before but are now because they don't know how to behave."
Young also attributes a lot of the current cases to teenagers, since they are often calling into the hotline or reaching out for help when possible. "We're seeing a lot of teens calling saying that now that they're stuck with family, issues are coming to a head. We had a young girl who called saying school was her safe place and now she's stuck at home. That's very common now."
The Childhood Domestic Violence Association (CDVA) is also working to track the spike in child abuse now and trying to provide resources to young people experiencing abuse and violence at home now. "So many of these young people haven't yet been able to name that what they're going through is child abuse or violence, or that they're experiencing violence by witnessing their parents' violence," Brian F. Martin, the founder and CEO of CDVA, said in an interview with Refinery29.
As mandated reporters who often interrupt cycles of abuse — like teachers, coaches, and people in charge of extracurricular activities — are no longer accessible to children or young people at risk, this eliminates a barrier that Young believes may contribute to the current spike. Without educators or trained adults who can call CPS when seeing bruises or hearing concern from children, those kids are more at risk than ever.
Now, the CDVA and ChildHelp are both working on tools and resources to help stop the violence at home. "What we help to do for the 15 million children who are experiencing it and over 40 million adults in the US alone who grew up living with it, is we create tools and language so that professionals and everyday people can help victims and survivors close the gap and find help," Martin said.
One of the tools that CDVA has made available through its site is a 22-minute movie, originally released on Amazon and now put on YouTube as well. The organisation's goal is that the short film, entitled Family Secrets: When Violence Hits Home, which shows kids dealing with violence at home, will help make language and depictions around abuse more accessible to young people and children going through it. According to Martin, this will help them name the problem and find assistance to protect themselves.
"We put it on YouTube so children who might be searching for things like 'dads hurting mom' or 'boyfriend hurting mother' or 'fighting in the house' can click on it and it helps them understand they're not alone, that they can call it abuse or violence, and that they can understand it will get better," Martin said. "It's also so that we can get rid of the most prominent lie — that's the lie of guilt: that 'there's something I should be able to do to stop it.'. That's the pattern we try to interrupt with our tools."
The CDVA also provides tools like Change A Life, an approximately 45-minute-long online program to help adults learn how to help children who are being abused or experiencing violence. Aside from tools like this, Young believes the best thing people can do right now if they want to help is post hotline numbers for people who are feeling alone. "Anyone can make that anonymous call and get help, or make young people aware of the resources that exist out in the world for them. If you feel unsafe, you can text or chat," Young said. "If people really care about helping, there are so many ways to be there for each other, and if you're a survivor, there are so many ways to take care of yourself right now."