WEST CHESTER, PA — We see the domino effect everywhere. Shut down this it closes down that. Stop buying this here, jobs are lost over there. The pandemic is teaching us a sometimes-unwelcome lesson in our connectedness and our dependence on each other.
One of the biggest shifts has been in how we do school. Kids are at home more often than not, interacting with classmates and teachers much less. It’s brought pressure on working parents and on teachers, leaving everyone loaded down, and children sometimes struggling to learn online without a teacher handy to help with lessons.
Teachers, though, do much more than teach in the classroom, and the reduction in classroom contact brings a chain-reaction loss beyond learning. Teachers and other school staff are considered “mandatory reporters” of child abuse. That means if they notice something that points to child abuse, they are legally required to report it.
Chester County’s Childline over the past five years has seen steady increases in reports of suspected physical or sexual abuse of children, or of neglect. In 2014, there were 414 such reports, and in 2019, there were 2,041 reports. About 60 percent of the reports came from school professionals, said Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan.
Ryan is concerned with the drop in child abuse reports for 2020. She said there’s been a 31 percent decrease in reports, to date, for 2020, with one month left.
A horrific child abuse case in the county last week drew attention to the issue. A 9-year-old girl was severely beaten and suffered what experts went so far as to call “torture,” and her near death resulted in her mother being charged with Aggravated Assault and her mother’s boyfriend being charged with Attempted Homicide. Old and new bruising as well as other injuries pointed to ongoing, systemic abuse. The child was locked in a closet for 15 hours the day before her abuse was discovered; the adults she lived with decided to call 911 when the child stopped breathing, after a beating with a curtain rod.
The child has been enrolled in all-virtual school. Assistant District Attorney Erin O’Brien, who specializes in child abuse case prosecutions, said there was “no way the girl’s teacher could have been expected to have reported” the possibility of abuse. Not only is interaction impinged in virtual environments, but worse, a growing number of kids nationwide are going missing from their virtual classes. Ryan cited a “60 Minutes” report that said 240,000 kids are missing from school, moving because of pandemic job losses, and just generally getting lost.
O’Brien pointed to other issues that limit teachers’ ability to identify child abuse in the new environments. Not all schools are mandating turning cameras on during virtual classes; not every kid wants to show their home environment to the whole class, she explained.
The 9-year-old victim’s home was in a nice area, Ryan added, pointing out that child abuse crosses into every social and economic level.
The virtual learning model represents a new gap, said Ryan. She said we’re seeing the loss of a safeguard as we aim to keep safe from the virus. “Right now, with educators not being the eyes, neighbors need to check in. They need to be keeping their eyes on the most vulnerable ones in our communities,” Ryan said.
The problem, of course, is that most of us are not trained in any way to recognize signs of child abuse if and when it crosses our path. We might have a moment of intuition telling us something isn’t right, but there’s a good chance we’ll dismiss it unless we see some flagrant sign of harm.
Ryan’s office focuses on child abuse prosecutions along with child pornography and internet crimes related to children. She said there are signs that could point to the presence of abuse that people should know.
Children of different ages show different signs if they are suffering abuse. Younger children might show a new clinginess to certain people, they might revert to bedwetting, or “act out,” not wanting to go with a caregiver. Older kids might have a decline in grades or in their hygiene, and may begin abusing drugs or alcohol.
Both Ryan and O’Brien pointed out that no single sign proves abuse, and these behaviors can manifest for reasons other than abuse.
But, Ryan also emphasized that reporting to the Childline is anonymous, so there really is no such thing as being overly suspicious. “Reporting is anonymous, so don’t be silent,” Ryan said.
Ryan “strongly recommends” that every adult take a training class to learn to recognize and respond to child abuse. She recommends an online training called “Stewards of Children.”
The Crime Victims Center for Chester County, Inc. offers a free online training for adults. Called Stewards of Children, it is training being distributed nationally to teach adults how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. It’s designed for parents, mandated reporters like teachers and counselors, and for organizations that serve children.
It is really for anyone who is concerned about children and wants to learn how to help protect them. It takes a bit of commitment, since the training is two hours, but Ryan said she hopes “every adult in Chester County” will take it. The link to the training is here.
Ryan and O’Brien encourage anyone who suspects child abuse to contact ChildLine at 800-932-0313.
To read a previous report on the charges in the case of the 9-year-old child abuse victim in Chester County, go here.
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