Texas child advocates warn of hidden signs of abuse amid quarantine

Texas child advocates warn of hidden signs of abuse amid quarantine

Reports of child abuse fell in Texas when schools moved online because of the coronavirus, but experts say this does not mean that abuse has slowed. Instead, without intervention by schools’ staff, children in unstable situations might be in more danger than usual.

“We can look back at our data and see almost instantly from the time children stopped going to school and the shelter-at-home orders came into place that the reports instantly started dropping,” said Tiffany Sturman, director of community engagement at the Williamson County Children’s Advocacy Center. “When our children are not in school seeing those watchdogs, seeing those protective teachers, those suspicions of abuse, those indicators of behavior, all those things teachers are being trained to see, are not being noticed.”

Schools’ staff made 15.3% of child abuse reports in the state during fiscal 2019, second only to medical personnel, who made 18.6% of reports, according to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. With children spending more time at home without school, and with doctor visits delayed by pandemic restrictions, advocates worry that early signs of abuse are being missed.

Sturman said reports at her center in have been down roughly 50% since the pandemic started in March. As a member of the statewide Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, Sturman’s organization coordinates investigations into child physical and sexual abuse with law enforcement, the district attorney’s office and state Child Protective Services.

Christina Green, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas chief advancement officer, says its 71 advocacy centers serve 210 counties in the state. Each year they help, on average, 60,000 children who are victims of abuse.

Green said some centers experienced up to a 30% drop in reporting this spring. State data show that in March, April and May calls to the statewide hotline dropped about 17%.

“The longer our children stay behind closed doors or hidden away from the public, the less reports of abuse are being made,” Sturman said. “We are really having to remind the public that just because reports have gone down does mean that child abuse has stopped. It simply means it is not being reported.”

This trend mirrors what happens when the nation is not in the middle of a pandemic, when reports of child abuse tend to drop over the summer with children out of school and then surge in September. Experts say this happens in part because more than 90% of children who are abused are abused by someone they know and trust.

“If these children are being abused (at) home or by a neighbor, or someone that is an adult that’s around them, then no one is reporting that,” said Tara Powdrill, the director of marketing and communications for the Center for Child Protection, a nonprofit advocacy center in Travis County.

Some metrics also indicate that, even as abuse reports remain lower than usual, the severity of reported cases might be going up.

“The stress of the pandemic, the stress of the economic downturn, and children not being in school or in day care, all these risk factors are combined in a unique way that we haven’t seen before,” Green said. “We are seeing that the reports have been down, but the severity of abuse is increasing.”

For example, Green said, the number of child fatality investigations doubled in Texas in March, April and May compared with the same period last year.

Kimberly Avila Edwards, a pediatrician and the director of advocacy and external affairs for Dell Children's Medical Center, said that while she has not seen an increase in child abuse cases, she has heard that other hospitals have seen an uptick.

“We recognize that we’re in an environment where there are increased risk factors and decreased protective factors, so we all have to be very mindful,” she said.

Avila Edwards also pointed out that, in an ongoing pandemic, related trends are still developing every day. She urged people not to jump to conclusions about what might be causing trends related to child abuse, and encouraged people to check on children in their communities and families.

Many advocacy centers are busy assembling educational materials for the public to increase vigilance among those who might still have contact with children, including neighbors, camp counselors and delivery workers. Every adult in Texas is considered a mandatory reporter of child abuse.

“We are making sure that people understand that during this time we still have to protect children and that the normal pathways of doing that might not be there as a safety net,” Green said.

Powdrill said that child abuse happens in every ZIP code and across all socioeconomic backgrounds, so every community has to make a commitment to act on suspicions of maltreatment.

“If you have that suspicion of child abuse or neglect, you do not have to have proof, you just have to have that suspicion to make that report,” she said.

Powdrill said the education department at her center has been offering weekly online training in English and Spanish on topics such as discipline, internet safety for kids, and abuse and neglect recognition. The center encourages everyone to sign up for its webinars, and, for those with schedule constraints, previous sessions are accessible online.

Other advocacy centers are disseminating information through social media, on the radio and through newsletters. The most important thing, Green said, is that conversations about child abuse are happening and that parents can get access to the resources they need during a time of heightened stress.

“This is a hard time, you’re not alone, we see you,” she said. “You can take a step back, take a breath, call a neighbor or family to watch your child for a little while if you need a break.”

Powdrill said she is especially concerned with training people to spot the signs of child sexual abuse, which can be more subtle than the signs of physical abuse or neglect.

“Sexual abuse with children is a crime that thrives in secrecy,” she said. “Learn those signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse because they’re a lot of behavioral changes. If a kid is normally really outgoing and fun and energetic, and, all of a sudden, they’re really shy and reserved, that could be a sign.”

She added, “Keep that line of communication open to kids, and if you’re their safe adult in their lives, make sure they know it. Make sure they can tell you anything they need to and that they know you’re there.”

Advocacy centers are expecting to see a spike in reports of abuse when children return to school in the fall, especially if teachers are seeing their students in person again. However, many worry that the loss of funding could affect their ability to respond effectively.

Green explained that advocacy centers provide essential services in abuse investigations, such as conducting forensic interviews with children and offering free mental health support to children and families healing from sexual and physical abuse.

“The state doesn’t provide these services because the advocacy centers now provide them, and we are so interwoven into the system,” she said. “If we go away tomorrow, the state has to absorb those functions — and quite frankly, they’re not prepared to do so.”

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission submitted a proposed 5% budget reduction plan for 2020-21, as required by the state. Child advocacy programs are among the many services that would be affected by the proposed cuts.

Many centers also host annual spring fundraisers, but their cancellation because of the coronavirus pandemic depleted their money sources. Sturman said her center expected $75,000 in revenue in April from events that had to be canceled.

Melissa Rodriguez, director of community partnerships at the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center, said it put together a virtual auction earlier this month after its annual event was canceled in May.

Ensuring that centers have enough money to keep their staff, who are trained to work with children experiencing abuse and related trauma, is essential, Green said.

“We have to make sure that the safety net is still there on the other side of this, to be there to respond to these cases,” she said. “Without that safety net, we’re going to be in a worse-off place if we’re not able to adequately respond both to the investigations and to the healing process of the children and families impacted by abuse.”