Warning Signs

The country’s “new normal” – amid quarantine and social distancing mandates – has been tough for everyone. With whole families homebound, tensions are sure to be running high. It’s been especially difficult for children, as they’re adjusting to home schooling and uprooted routines. Some kids are stuck in a stressful home life, too – and being disconnected from those in whom they can confide and seek help (supportive, trusted teachers and friends) is making it worse.

“Abuse didn’t take a vacation here [with the pandemic],” said Joy Barrett, CEO of the Granite State Children’s Alliance (GSCA).

GSCA provides a neutral environment for all child abuse victims throughout New Hampshire “where justice, healing, equity and prevention are fostered through the consistent, high quality and sustaining collaboration of community partners.” It is the statewide organization for New Hampshire’s Child Advocacy Centers (CAC); there are 11 such centers, one in each county. GSCA also serves as the New Hampshire chapter of the National Children’s Alliance (NCA).

According to Barrett, the cases GSCA sees mainly involve some type of sexual abuse. This is particularly difficult for others to notice and discover, as there are rarely visible signs or evidence. And most often, she said, kids find it particularly difficult to report it. Some are embarrassed, some are simply afraid. Others may not even realize that what is happening is wrong because many times, the perpetrator has been a trusted family member or family friend.

“Most often, those who are being abused are living in the home with the perpetrator,” Barrett said. “So, the child is essentially trapped there with that perpetrator.”

Amid the pandemic, schools have been closed and programs cancelled. For many children, those places are havens for safety. It’s where they can escape, even if temporarily, their terrible home life. It’s also a place where they are surrounded by adults they trust, which makes them much more likely to confide about and report abuse.

“Now, not being able to go to school or other programs, they don’t feel safe at home,” Barrett said. “Right now, they feel like they have no one to turn to for help.”

Such a disconnect from a safe, trusted environment also makes it difficult for abuse to even be noticed or suspected.

“These relationships with the schools is very important, so it’s been difficult. The COVID crisis hasn’t stopped abuse from happening,” said Bob Collinsworth, a family support specialist and forensic interviewer for the Monadnock region and Keene CAC. “We’ve been concerned about this from the outset. How can we reach these kids?”

Upon learning of any child abuse, Collinsworth coordinates a response with local police as well as the state Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). All allegations are investigated, which includes interviews with the children. If/when claims are found to be true, they’re removed from the home. Cases, as far as the abuse, may be similar, said Carlos Agudelo, a program coordinator and forensic interviewer for the Monadnock region and Keene CAC, but each child is unique. After evaluation and talks with GSCA and police (when needed), the child is taken to a counselor for a mental health exam we well as a medical doctor for a physical exam.

All of the related agencies must be more vigilant right now, he noted, monitoring social media and other such outlets for signs and identifying evidence. It’s also important for DCYF as well as police to more often check on children and families that have been involved with problems in the past. The chance for recurring issues is higher among them and now even more so with families being home all the time.

CAC is also charged to follow up regularly with those who have experienced abuse. According to Collinsworth, legal services are not provided but working with local police, DCYF and other such agencies to ensure the child isn’t back with the perpetrator or in a situation where that’s a possibility.

“That recipe for abuse doesn’t take a vacation. It doesn’t just go away,” Barrett said. “We have to think, ‘How do we make these kids feel safe?’”

If a child has been placed with a foster family, the adults there sometimes discover previous abuse (or are already armed with the knowledge of previous abuse when the child arrives) and will report it to the proper authorities and agencies. All adults are urged to do this. Some may notice something isn’t right with a child or situation but are sometimes hesitant to report it; according to Collinsworth, they sometimes think, “what if I’m wrong and someone gets in trouble for something that didn’t happen?” They cannot think that way.

“You have to put the child first, put their concerns first,” he said. “If you think something is wrong, talk to someone. Talk to the police or another agency that could help.”

There are some signs that something is off, even if the abuse isn’t reported outright. According to Barrett, those signs include kids being defiant at school or at home – this doesn’t necessarily mean they are being abused, but it could be an indication. Kids who are abused often become withdrawn and depressed, as well.

Adults must pay attention to these signs and listen to what the child is saying. It’s crucial.

“It’s always better always to err on the side of caution and believe them,” Agudelo said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”