Due to the coronavirus, children are staying home for their safety: school is now via e-learning, sports and extracurricular activities are not being held and social gathering places, such as pools, libraries and playgrounds are closed.
But for many children, staying home is not safe when they live with their abuser.
According to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, 125,000 children are abused or neglected each year in Illinois and one in five children will be abused before they turn 18. Child abuse includes physical abuse, emotional and verbal abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.
“All of us working in the child abuse arena are worried about the children quarantined with an abusive caregiver,” said Holly Peifer, executive director of Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC). “Knowing what some children live with every day, it is difficult to think about it. These vulnerable children are truly trapped right now. They have little to no access to mandated reporters, or even to non-offending family members in some situations.”
CAC coordinates child abuse investigations with law enforcement, the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s office, DCFS, medical and health professionals, child advocates and trauma specialists.
Peifer said that Illinois DCFS is reporting at least a 50% decrease in reports and calls notifying them of child abuse and neglect. She said that the CAC in DeKalb County typically visits an average of three or four children a week but has only seen about 15 children since the quarantine began in March.
In DeKalb County, the CAC completed 150 forensic interviews from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019. Comparatively, the center has already completed 150 this fiscal year, with almost two months still left and with coronavirus pandemic occurring.
“In my opinion, child abuse is certainly not decreasing, we just aren’t getting the reports,” Peifer said. “I believe that there is an increase of child abuse because children are at home more, but there’s a pretty significant decrease, at least 50%, in the number of calls coming in. Most of the calls come from mandated reporters, but those adults are not seeing children during the stay-at-home order. Instead, the children are trapped at home in an abusive situation.”
Jill Olson, the executive director of CASA DeKalb County, also said that she has seen a decrease in calls and reports made. CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) DeKalb County is the Guardian ad Litem appointed to abused and neglected children in the county.
“We are about 65% down in the number of calls we’re receiving, but that doesn’t mean that child abuse and neglect and abuse has stopped,” Olson said. “It means that it’s not being reported. We don’t have as many eyes on children. Teachers, coaches, scout troop leaders are not seeing children as often as they regularly would. It’s why we as a community have to keep vigilant and report any suspicions we may have.”
With in-person school not in session, Safe Passage is not visiting classrooms to teach children about recognizing child abuse and prevention.
“When we give presentations, children often disclose their abuse to us afterwards,” Mary Ellen Schaid, Safe Passage’s executive director, said. “Without these events and without being in proximity to the children on a regular basis, adults are not able to witness the abuse. They’re not seeing anything, so they can’t say anything.”
According to Illinois DCFS, as many as 100,000 abused and neglected children go unreported each year.
“It’s our responsibility as adults and as a community to protect children and keep them safe,” Schaid said. “We have to do whatever we can to get children away from abuse or neglect scenarios.”
“If you know a child, please check in on them when you can,” Peifer said. “Ask them how they are. Look for anything that seems out of the ordinary. Ask your own children about their friends. Don’t hesitate to call in your suspicions. You don’t need to have proof or evidence of abuse in order to call in a suspicion. People are often fearful that they might be wrong. That is true. You might be, but you might be right.”
There are two hotlines are available 24/7 for children if they are being abused or if they know someone that is. They can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or they can call or text the National Child Help Hotline at 800-422-4453.
If you see abuse taking place or speak to a child with injuries, call 911. If you suspect abuse, call both Illinois DCFS’ hotline, 800-25-ABUSE, and local law enforcement. Reporting child abuse can be made anonymously.
"Child abuse happens everywhere, it happens in every socioeconomic background and it is happening here in DeKalb County," Olson said. "If you don't get involved, if you don't make the call to reach out and help that child, who will?"