GUEST COMMENTARY: Suffering of children can go unseen in the midst of pandemic | #childabuse | #children | #kids

Peace. Comfort. Joy.

Those are feelings we wish for ourselves and others during the holiday season.

The unfortunate truth for thousands of children in Western Arkansas, including Sebastian County, is they feel no peace, no comfort and no joy.

Instead, they are victims of sexual and physical abuse and neglect.

At the Hamilton Center for Child Advocacy in Fort Smith, we helped approximately 1,000 children in the covid-19 year of 2020. For perspective, that’s about 10 percent of the total number of children helped in child advocacy centers statewide.

Let that sink in.

Hamilton Center is blessed with a compassionate and caring team of people who love and care for children. We provide free services to victims and their non-offending family members in Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Scott and Sebastian counties. We strive to provide holistic services and care to young victims to aid in the healing process.

When a child first enters our facility, they feel alone and scared. Hamilton Center provides a safe place for them to share their traumatic experiences, one time, with law enforcement officials and advocates. From there, we provide any necessary medical care and begin the process of mental health assistance.

As needs grow, so, too, must our services. Hamilton Center recently added an in-house therapist to our full-time staff to help ensure that victims and their non-offending families have their mental health needs met. Additionally, we have expanded physical space to better serve our clients with advocacy, forensic interviews and medical exam services.

The magnitude of the child abuse problem in the United States cannot be understated. Since covid-19, there has been a rise in the number of reported physical abuse and neglect cases. When school buildings closed in 2020, students were isolated in their homes and learned remotely. For innocent children being abused, it meant they were trapped in their homes with their abuser. They suffered in silence and secrecy because signs of abuse go undetected when children are not seen regularly by others, outside of the home.

While it is extremely rare for a child to lie about sexual abuse, for instance, it is also a secret they keep to themselves. More outside eyes are needed to identify abuse and report it.

School teachers, nurses and counselors are trained to recognize the signs of abuse. They are also mandatory reporters of abuse under Arkansas state law. Without their regular exposure to children, many abuse cases go unnoticed and unreported. We need more people to be on the lookout.

It doesn’t matter where you live. Physical abuse and neglect are most affected by socioeconomic status, which was widely impacted by the pandemic as families lost employment. By contrast, sexual abuse occurs equally across all levels of society.

Here are some red flags: changes in behavior such as aggression and anger; anxiety or depression; frequent absences from school; reluctance to leave school or church activities, representing an obvious fear to go home; rebellious or defiant behavior; physical symptoms such as bruises in uncommon places on the body.

These are just a few signs. Specific symptoms may vary but are consistent in both boys and girls.

While it is true that in some cases child abuse victims do repeat the cycle of abuse with their own children or become addicted to drugs and alcohol, it doesn’t have to be that way. Statistics show that there are many more instances where victims have successfully broken that cycle of abuse through effective intervention and therapy.

But that road to rebuilding begins with each of us. Our society needs adults with courage to do something. The first logical and easy step is to call the statewide Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline at 1-844-SAVE-A-CHILD. That hotline is operated by trained professionals at the Arkansas State Police, which investigates each reported incident.

Together, as a community, we can help those most vulnerable in our state by reporting abuse and giving children the hope and healing they deserve.

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