Child advocates have seen changes in the ways cases of abuse have been reported to authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when the majority of children haven’t returned to schools for in-person learning — a traditional safety net for children to share what is happening to them.
“The reports were coming in more from neighbors, or from folks that are (physically) seeing the kids, and they’re making reports on something that they had seen or witnessed, but not necessarily received an outcry from a child that has told them what’s happening to them,” said Susan Oliva, executive director for the Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso.
The number of investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect in El Paso County dropped to a 10-year low last year, according to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Oliva said there was a drop in the number of children the advocacy center assisted in 2020 as well. The center served 687 children in 2019 and 562 children in 2020.
Oliva said they served more children above the age of 12 during the pandemic and saw a drop in the younger children whose cases would likely be reported at school.
“I saw a significant drop — 50% less in that category of children aged 6 to 12,” Oliva said. “What really stood out to me was that age bracket. The numbers of the ages (of children) that the teachers most impact when it comes to reporting.”
Raquel Herrera, family intervention specialist with the El Paso Independent School District, said during a typical year students are reporting abuse in the safety of a campus, or their classroom, or a counselor’s office.
Herrera said if the outcries were not reported to a counselor, the teachers would be able to see firsthand whether there was an issue with students that needed to be addressed. The cases reported by students dropped in the last year, although Herrera did not have specific figures.
Herrera said the district prepared virtual spaces for students to be able to reach out for help early in the pandemic, but there were not many outcries because the children likely did not have enough privacy to do so.
“When children come to school, physically, they are away from the stressful environments, the risks at home, the risk of adults that might be in their life. So we knew that it was going to be extremely difficult, and we expected that there was going to be a drop in those cases that would be reported.”
She said during the pandemic and virtual learning more reports have been made by people who have witnessed concerning situations unfold on camera.
“The different situation that everybody was put into is that those (abuse) cases that were coming up were actually being witnessed by teachers and by peers,” Herrera said, adding that having cameras and microphones on has made some cases of abuse more visible.
Herrera said the district is preparing to offer more counseling services to families who have witnessed cases of abuse.
“When we think of child abuse, child neglect, we think of that student who was being impacted. We think about that family,” Herrera said.
She said with the virtual setting there are other witnesses who could possibly have trauma if it was not something they had been exposed to.
Herrera said she anticipates when more students return to school for in-person learning there will be an increase in reported cases and an increased need for behavioral and mental health services.
“When they feel they have that privacy, to talk to a trusted adult, I do believe that we are going to see an increase in those numbers,” Herrera said.
Sandy Jackson, community outreach coordinator for CASA of El Paso, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, said she also anticipates more reports of abuse will occur as more students return to campuses.
“There are cases of abuse still going on, it’s not one of those things that’s just going to stop overnight, unfortunately — so that’s really challenging, but people in the community should know that we’re still here for the children,” Jackson said.
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.
Jackson said CASA moved all operations and interactions to the virtual setting last March, but the advocates have been creative in making sure children know that they are being thought of.
She said as more places and activities have opened up some advocates have been able to slowly begin visiting with children in-person, but those in-person visits still remain low compared to pre-pandemic visits.
Jackson said the organization has made becoming an advocate accessible through virtual training and encourages anyone interested to visit the website for more information.
She said when CASA intervenes they ultimately hope to get children back with their parents by giving them the skills they need to provide a more positive environment for their children
“This is a great time to become an advocate (and) a great time to speak up for these kids and hopefully get them into a safe environment,” Jackson said.
How to help:
To report child abuse and neglect call 1-800-252-5400
Cover illustration by Steve White/U.S. Air Force