Child advocates are seeing troubling trends in reported cases of abuse since the COVID-19 pandemic reached El Paso in mid-March.
Texas Abuse Hotline calls show that during the months of March, April and May, the number of reported cases statewide dropped over the previous year during the same three-month timeframe.
This March there was a drop of about 1,300 cases statewide from 2019. In April the reported cases in 2020 dropped by 8,415 when the state was largely under a stay-at-home order and in May, when restrictions eased, the decrease in reported cases dropped by 6,398 over the previous year.
Specific call numbers for El Paso aren’t available, but child advocates say fewer cases are being reported.
“Just because the number of reports are lower doesn’t mean that the number of children being victimized isn’t lower. It just means the number of reports are lower,” said Susan Oliva, executive director for the Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso.
The center serves children that are suspected victims of sexual and serious physical abuse and for children who have witnessed a violent crime.
Oliva said on average there are probably around 1,200 to 1,400 cases reported to Child Protective Services for the El Paso area in a typical March and April, but only half of that amount were reported during the stay at home orders in March and April.
“But I understand why. If you are being (sheltered) in place with the person that is abusing you, I mean, who are you going to share that information with?” Oliva said. “You are not. You are pretty much going to be locked in place with the person that is hurting you.”
Stay-home orders took away safety nets
Children under stay-at-home orders did not have access to the usual safety nets like schools, visiting outside family like grandparents, or extracurricular activities where they normally would have been able to tell someone what was happening, she said.
Oliva said she encourages family members and friends or relatives to listen to children because they will often fall just short of disclosing abuse.
“Sometimes they are trying to tell you something and you are not listening. Maybe they are just taking you to the edge of disclosure where they are going to say ‘hey are you going to believe me if I tell you that my brother is sexually assaulting me or if they tell you my dad is,” Oliva said.
How a trusted individual responds to that information could make the difference between whether that child shares the information with anyone else.
“That may be the only opportunity that the child has to disclose (the abuse),” Oliva said.
Oliva said since the restrictions eased in May, the center has been extraordinarily busy and fears the number of cases will spike when children are allowed to return to school in the fall.
Shelter not seeing school-age children
Enrique Davila, director of the Child Crisis Center of El Paso, said he is also concerned about a spike in cases when children return to classrooms. The crisis center serves as an emergency shelter for children ages newborn to 13 who suffer from abuse and or neglect, and that are at risk for abuse, neglect or suffering a family crisis.
Davila said he has seen a dramatic drop in the number of school-age children they typically serve since the pandemic reached El Paso, which is not a good sign.
“The fear is the school-age children, the ones that have experiencd a different type of child abuse, the ones that are still locked up at home,” Davila said. “We still fear that they are still out there (and) unfortunately there’s no one reporting those cases and that’s our biggest concern right now.”
Davila said school-age children typically account for 75 percent capacity at the shelter, but there has been a shift in the last few months where the majority of children being seen are infants, or children under the age of 5.
What is troubling, he said, is that the only reason they are seeing an increase in the cases for infants is that they were either taken to a doctor or hospital, which is where the cases were reported to Child Protective Services.
The center is licensed to have 31 children housed at any given time. Prior to COVID-19 the number of children at the shelter would range from 15 to 20 at a time with school-age children accounting for 75 percent of the cases.
Davila said they have been nearly at capacity for the last three months, but the percentage of infants now makes up for 90 percent of the children being served.
El Paso programs protect children
Sandy Jackson, community outreach coordinator for CASA of El Paso, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, said they had a waiting list of children prior to COVID-19 and is certain the number of cases will rise when more children are able to go back to school.
CASA are trained to be volunteers who work with abused and neglected children in the court system. If a child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, a judge will appoint a CASA volunteer to be the child’s advocate and help determine what is in the best interest of a child as a neutral party while the child goes through the court system.
During the pandemic CASA has shifted its operation to video services for both meetings with children for check-ins and for training volunteer cohorts, Jackson said.
She said they have not yet seen a large increase in reported cases.
“We feel that our cases may go up on calls made based on whatever the summer is going to look like and whatever the fall is going to look like for these kids,” Jackson said.
Sylvia Acosta, CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region, said the nonprofit this spring began providing respite care when schools closed for parents who still have to work but need child care.
The program has allowed children the opportunity to be in a safe and more social setting while unable to be in school or regular day care.
Acosta said since the program started they have seen a variety of emotions from children, including increased anxiety, increased depression and outright joy.
“It makes us wonder how isolated these children are feeling,” Acosta said. “Yes, the pandemic is a big issue to all of us but when you are younger you are trying to figure out, ‘Why is it that all of a sudden I cant see my friends, why is it all of a sudden I can’t go to school?’” Acosta said.
While the program has been able to provide a sense of normalcy for children and respite for parents, Acosta said they have also seen some difficult cases of child abuse.
“We have seen a lot and the cases that we have seen are kind of jarring and the opportunity for abuse is so much greater at this time,” she said.
Acosta said that she urges parents that may be under stress to seek out help without feeling ashamed.
The YWCA and area nonprofits offer a multitude of services to help families in need during these unprecedented times, she said.
“That’s what nonprofits do, that’s why we are here,” Acosta said.
How to help
To report child abuse and neglect call 1-800-252-5400
Cover photo:U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steve White