Millions of Texans have been encouraged to shelter-in-place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But for children who are abused, there is no safety at home. And for child advocacy agencies charged with helping them, that presents difficult challenges.
At some North Texas agencies, reports of child abuse have all but vanished in recent weeks.
“Well, since everybody’s been at home, we’ve actually seen about a 50, five-zero, percent drop,” said Lynn Davis, president and CEO of the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center.
But he said those numbers are deceptive.
“We’ve got 30 years worth of data that says the numbers should be continuing on in a certain curve,” he said. “But because everyone’s at home and no one’s reporting, the whole state has seen a 50% drop.”
For example, during the first week of March, there were more than 11,000 calls to the Texas abuse hotline, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
By the last week of March, there were fewer than 2,500.
Davis thinks he knows why there’s been a big drop: Vital eyes and ears of the community aren’t around to detect signs of abuse, he said.
“We know our main source of reports comes from school teachers and school personnel,” he said. “And since the children are not in school, those reports are not being made and that concerns us greatly.”
In some cases, kids are dying.
“Normally, we see about six deaths a year due to injuries from physical abuse,” she said. “In calendar year 2020, we’ve already had four. And three of those were within a month of each other.”
The deaths are particularly unusual because of the age of the children, Dr. Coffman said. They’re preschool age. Most often, in child abuse cases, deaths involve infants.
Coffman has a guess as to why there might be a difference in age.
“Maybe these would’ve been children not at home as much,” she said. “So maybe they would’ve been going to preschool or pre-k. Maybe there would’ve been more family members involved.”
Outside hospitals, as advocates work to keep abused kids safe from family violence, they also have to keep them safe from the coronavirus.
Last year, the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center conducted 20,000 abuse victim therapy sessions on site. With the shelter-in-place orders, that’s just not possible. So the center’s moved sessions online. But that’s tricky, Davis said.
“Especially when they’ve only been in the building one time,” he said. “Connecting with that person without seeing them face-to-face has been difficult.”
Yet, some employees must make in-person visits — especially when the abuse is severe or life-threatening.
Lexi Allman is a family advocate with the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center. She recently responded to a case where a pre-teen girl was sexually abused by her brother. She was trying to provide comfort to the girl’s caregiver while wearing gloves and a mask.
“I really felt like there was a disconnect between us,” she said. “But as I spoke with her caregiver, while her child was in the interview, she really began to open up and I really felt like I was able to provide emotional support and I found the mask was just melting away.”
In certain cases, when it’s determined that a child must be removed from the home, the foster care system steps in.
Christa Stewart coordinates foster care services at Hope Cottage in Dallas. She said the pandemic is adding additional trauma.
“Could you imagine being pulled away from your birth parents, then you’re not even able to see them?” she said. “Maybe you get some phone calls. Maybe you get to video chat with them. But you don’t get to hug them. You don’t get to hold their hand. It’s just got to be really hard.”
Eventually, the stay-at-home orders will be lifted. And advocates say they’re preparing for a crush of cases to come in.
Dr. Coffman with Cook Children’s said that will be a chance for the most important advocates to step up: the kids themselves.
“When they get back to school, the children actually have the opportunity to tell,” she said.
That’s when they'll have a chance to be heard.