During the novel coronavirus pandemic, “there has been a lot of talk about the cases going down, but the reality is, now that school is back (in session), we’ve started to see a sharp spike in the referrals and the cases that we’re getting,” said Susan Meehan during the Rotary Club of Aiken’s meeting Monday at Newberry Hall.
And, Meehan added, she expects there will be even more reports about problems in the near future with “the kids coming back four and then five days a week. Once they start trusting their teachers, they start to be more open and talk about what happened during the shutdown.”
Meehan is the executive director of the Child Advocacy Center.
In general, 85% of the reports about child abuse are received through someone in the school system, she said.
This past March, after schools closed because of COVID-19 and virtual learning became the norm, the Child Advocacy Center temporarily lost that important pipeline of information about the victims and families it assists.
In-person learning resumed part-time in Aiken County’s public schools in late August.
“For some people, the shutdown was really a time for family bonding, and it brought some families closer together … (but) for some children, it was a nightmare,” Meehan said.
A learning strategy that has grown in popularity during the pandemic has been for parents and caregivers to hire someone to help with homeschooling or to provide assistance to a “pod” or group of students that is participating in classes virtually.
Meehan believes steps should be taken to make sure that children in those situations are safe from abuse.
She recommended conducting background and reference checks to find out more about the person who will be in charge of the students.
Meehan’s other suggestions included limiting “isolated, one-on-one situations” and telling children that there are areas in a house, such as bedrooms, where “there is no reason to ever go into” while being taught or assisted with their learning.
Parents and caregivers should also encourage children to talk about the details of their experiences and arrange to randomly drop in, if possible, to check out what is going on while students are receiving instruction.
If younger children and older children are learning together, supervision of their interactions is especially important because in 40% of sexual abuse cases, “an older, more dominant child” is the perpetrator, Meehan said.
Another concern is online activity.
Because of the pandemic, children are “on the internet, more than they have ever been,” Meehan said. “The places they have found or been able to get into have not always been appropriate, so it’s really important to talk to them about internet safety and to actually look at their phone and their (computer usage) history every now and then.”
In 2019, the Child Advocacy Center helped 576 children. The number of forensic interviews conducted by its staff, 509, was the highest ever.
The most common type of abuse was sexual (54%), followed by physical (27%). Other types of abuse included “witness to violence,” neglect and drug endangerment, according to Child Advocacy Center records.