How the coronavirus pandemic feeds the pandemic of abuse
Arguably, worse than the terror of traumatic abuse at the hands of a loved one is the fear that there is nowhere to turn or escape.
Articles from the last nine months detail the ever-increasing issue of violence fed by a decrease of contact. They are all indicative of trending exploitation made more hidden by the coronavirus – both locally and at the state and federal levels.
That’s just what is being reported. Stoked by an isolating pandemic, the possibility of disclosing domestic and child abuse to authorities has become even more harrowing.
Crashing into Multiple Crises
According to an article written by Dr. Megan L. Evans, Margo Lindauer and Dr. Maureen E. Farrell from The New England Journal of Medicine, there is a “pandemic within a pandemic” in which the closure of schools, furlough of millions of Americans and stay-at-home orders have led to an increase of IPV (Intimate Partner Violence).
The article states that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the nation in March, domestic violence hotlines anticipated and prepared for an increase of reports and demand for services – however, they experienced the opposite. According to the authors, some U.S. regions have seen a drop in reporting by “more than 50 percent.”
One in four women and one in ten men experience IPV, and violence can be physical, emotional, sexual or psychological. People of all walks of life, regardless of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class and religion, experience IPV, “however, such violence has a disproportionate effect on communities of color and other marginalized groups.”
The Rio Grande Valley is a minority-majority region in the United States, impacted severely by class struggles. When things get rough, “economic instability, unsafe housing, neighborhood violence and a lack of safe and stable child care and social support” will only exacerbate the situation.
Being financially entangled without a means of escape means victims have less opportunity to save funds independently, and the pandemic has also led to shelters and alternative housing arrangements becoming more scarce.
Schools closing have also meant that the stress of “balancing work, child care, and children’s education” has led to a rise in child abuse. Teachers, child care providers and clinicians who would see students more often and act as mandated reporters have fewer interactions with children and families, and therefore “fewer opportunities to assess, recognize and report signs of abuse than they did before the pandemic.”
A Global Issue Close to Home
An article from the Journal of Clinical Nursing written by Dr. Caroline Bradbury-Jones and Dr. Louise Isham also affirms that the idea of staying“safe at home” can be paradoxical when a home is not a safe space, and “there are actions that may help to mitigate the additional risks that COVID‐19, and its attendant social and economic effects, may have on victim–survivors.”
The journal indicates that the steps to preventing the spread of the virus are essential, but they also bring additional stresses to people. They took data from several countries and found rising rates of domestic violence during the pandemic in Brazil, Spain and the United Kingdom, as well as the U.S.
Staying home is all well and good when it’s a haven, but for the abuse victim the imbalance of power dynamics is more severe, and can be further distorted by the abuser. The article states that “restrictive measures are also likely to play into the hands of people who abuse through tactics of control, surveillance and coercion,” and though it is unintentional on the part of the government and medical professionals, “lockdown measures may therefore grant people who abuse greater freedom to act without scrutiny or consequence.”
The authors’ intention is to “raise concerns about the needs and experiences of victim–survivors of domestic violence, as a way of drawing attention to some of the unfortunate and troubling paradoxes of social distancing and isolation measures, not in opposition to them.”
A press release from the RGV Kappa Delta Alumnae Chapter stated that the Kappa Delta Foundation KiDs Grant (worth $5,000) was awarded to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo and Starr Counties (CACHSC). Thanks to that grant, additional forensic interview services were added to their Mission office.
Grant funds were used to equip an additional Forensic Interview Room at the Edinburg Center, and “relocate existing portable equipment to the Mission Center.”
CACHSC Executive Director Jesus A. Sanchez said the forensic interview is a “critical step in investigating child abuse,” as interviews are conducted when the CACHSC is notified that a child may have been a victim of physical or sexual abuse, or may have witnessed a violent crime. Interviews are then recorded from a separate room and provided to law enforcement.
“The addition of the new equipment allows us to greatly minimize the time it takes for a child to be interviewed,” Sanchez said. “We provide a child-friendly environment where they can tell their story and minimize the number of interviews they have.”
The Children’s Advocacy Center has two main locations in Edinburg and Mission, with a satellite office in Roma. The local organization was founded in 2000, after a two-year-old child died as a result of their abuse. The organization’s goal is to provide a safe space for children, gather proper evidence for law enforcement and provide therapy options for the abused, their siblings and family members.
“Our goal is to reduce the emotional trauma of those children and their families,” Sanchez said. “Our normal population is ages two to 17, but we do see some who are older. We are the only CAC that provides services to Hidalgo and Starr counties.”
At the centers, children are able to be treated for physical and mental medical issues, and report their stories of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Sanchez, and CACHSC Administrative Assistant Rosita Resmondo both agreed that the most rewarding aspect of their work is seeing children “graduate” from their counseling process.
“We provide forensic interviews to the victim advocacy support, all through the life of the case from the time they go in to when they go to court,” Sanchez said, adding they have a medical team ready to advocate for children. “You’d be surprised to see the difference in a child from when they first come in, to when they graduate from counseling. It can go from six months to one to two years. Just their appearance, how they smile, it’s an awesome experience.”
The CACHSC serves approximately 1,900 children annually, with about 12,000 reports coming in every year to Hidalgo County alone. In Mission, about 300 children are seen.
“We had 323 for fiscal year 2020 for the city of Mission,” Sanchez said. “Financial and socioeconomic stressors do impact [reporting], however child abuse does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter what their background is, child abuse is there.”
Child abuse is often referred to as a crime of secrecy, in part because a culture of adults has always taught children to keep things quiet and discourages reporting. 70 to 75 percent of the children seen at the CACHSC suffer from sexual abuse.
“Families tend to try to take care of it on their own, or because the [perpetrator] is the breadwinner, oftentimes the family does not want to report because it would break the family,” Sanchez said. “We see a lot of those stories.”
Sanchez said it is important to discuss the subject and educate kids on the matters.
“We should not be afraid to talk about this because a child needs a voice,” Sanchez said. “If we don’t talk about it, we’re creating an environment where children don’t really know about what is good and what is bad.”
The CACHSC is grateful to have partners like the Kappa Delta Alumnae, who have secured two major national grants for them so far. Their help has provided the Mission location with a Play Therapy Room and equipment for the Forensic Interview Room.
“The offences against children are horrific,” Resmondo said. “If we educate our community and educate our young children, we let them know that it is happening, the children have a voice. Hopefully we change the mindset that it’s a secret and nobody should know about it.”
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit in March, the CACHSC saw a swift decline in reports by 76 percent. They have started to get more reports since and leveled back up, but they are still seeing about 10 to 20 percent fewer cases than they normally would annually.
“Children have not had the opportunity to go into a safe space where they can feel comfortable telling their story, like a school or a daycare,” Sanchez said. “Children are at home, and unfortunately 98 percent of the time the abuser is someone the child knows.”
Sanchez and Resmondo stressed that through the pandemic, they have remained open and available to anyone in the community seeking refuge from child abuse. They encourage residents who suspect child abuse to call either local law enforcement at 9-1-1, or the national hotline at 1-800-252-5400.
“While there’s a decrease in reporting, the severity of the cases we are seeing is more extreme,” Sanchez said. “Especially in the physical abuse cases, right now with families losing their jobs, that creates a lot of frustration for parents. The stresses are very high-level.”
This is the second KiDs Grant the RGV alumnae chapter has secured for the CACHSC. The first was a $6,500 grant to create a Play Therapy Room at the Mission center.
“KiDs grants allow KD alumnae chapters to make a direct, positive impact on families and children in our communities,” Carol Hudsonpillar, chair of the RGV chapter, said. “After securing the first grant, our chapter adopted the CACHSC as our local philanthropy. We are grateful to the foundation for helping us strengthen our partnership with this exceptional organization.”
Hudsonpillar said the RGV Chapter said they were excited to see the advocacy center be awarded the grant for a second time, particularly because of the pandemic.
“They’ve very deserving of the grant,” Hudsonpillar said. “Child abuse does not stop because of the pandemic, it becomes more important.”
Hudsonpillar said the foundation is the charitable arm of the national Kappa Delta Sorority. One of KD’s official philanthropies is Prevent Child Abuse America.
“Since 1981 Kappa Delta has supported Prevent Child Abuse America, and to date I think they’ve donated over $26 million to our national organization,” Hudsonpillar said. “It made the Children’s Advocacy Center a really good fit for us here locally. The services they provide is the perfect fit for our Alumnae chapter.”
The Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo and Starr Counties was established in June of 2000 when a local two-year old’s life ended tragically as a result of abuse. It is part of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, a network of centers across the United States “committed to protecting children from abuse and neglect.”
Hudsonpillar said the staff at the Children’s Advocacy Center should be commended for their work to meet the critical needs of children across the RGV. Providing financial support to sustainable projects like theirs made them ideal for the KiDs Grant.
“It’s for families and children,” Hudsonpillar said. “It also allows us as alumni the opportunity to partner with a local nonprofit and strengthen their philanthropic endeavors.”
Usually, the Kappa Delta Alumnae RGV Chapter holds a fun fair toy drive for children in need during the winter holiday season and April, which is National Prevent Child Abuse month. This year, because of the pandemic, the usual protocol had to change.
“We really try to reach out to all of our members through social media, and we got a good response back in the spring when everybody opened up their hearts and wrote a check or sent money,” Hudsonpillar said. “Hopefully that will happen again for Christmastime.”
This is not to say the nation should just open up and allow the public health crisis to run rampant, rather, the resources available to victims should be made more readily available. Structural changes need to be established to provide safeguards that would ensure safety in the face of danger and cruelty, even in an isolated environment where it seems like escape is impossible.
Resources for those wishing to report IPV/domestic violence/child abuse are listed below.
- Those in danger or wishing to report abuse can call local law enforcement at 9-1-1, or reach out to the Child Protective Services hotline at 1-800-252-5400 (toll-free, available 24/7)
- Texas Abuse and Neglect Hotline (1 (800) 252-5400)
- Estrella’s House (part of the CACHSC), a safe haven with a child-friendly, non-institutional environment where young victims can tell their story, can be contacted at (956) 287-9754
- Hidalgo County Crime Victims Unit can be contacted at (956) 292-7616
- Hidalgo County Crime Victims Assistance can be reached at (956) 292-7600 or (956) 292-7613
- Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741)
- National Parent Hotline (call 1-855-427-2736)
- Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (visit https://www.childhelp.org/childhelp-hotline/ or call 1-800-422-4453)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline (visit http://thehotline.org, text LOVEIS to 22522, or call 1-800-799-7233)