Invisible victims of quarantine: child abuse experts fear another, different pandemic


VIRGINIA (WAVY) — As stay-at-home orders continue in Virginia and across the nation there is fear that another pandemic is emerging: child abuse. 

Reports of abuse are way down in the commonwealth since Virginia started sheltering in place two months ago, the Department of Social Services has seen a decrease of more than 90 percent in daily referrals for child abuse. At the same time, a national sexual abuse hotline is seeing an all-time high of children logging on to its site.

“I can’t imagine for them the degree of suffering that they’re living through,” said RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) Vice President of Public Policy Camille Cooper.

“The one thing that really stood out was that these children were describing abuse that was escalating in frequency because they were stuck at home now every day with their abuser. Some of the abusive acts that they were describing were pretty severe,” Cooper told 10 On Your Side.

Now that schools are closed, kids have lost their support system, as in, teachers, and coaches that would normally spot and report abuse.

The Virginia Department of Social Services told 10 On Your Side it typically receives approximately 7,700 calls a day. 

“Since the declared state of emergency, we have seen an over 90-percent decrease in the daily rate of referrals from school staff and an overall 50-percent decrease in referrals,” said Virginia DSS spokeswoman Cletisha Lovelace.

The child abuse program at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk reports seeing 30 percent fewer cases.

“It’s really not that the abuse has decreased, it’s just that we’re trying to look out for everybody’s health,” program Director Erinn Portnoy told WAVY.

In order to protect against COVID-19 Portnoy said CHKD had to change their criteria to only see in-person those who are in imminent danger.

“Younger children are always more at risk, children who are nonverbal and can’t fend for themselves,” Portnoy said. She expects to see a surge in reports when schools and camps reopen.

As many health experts expect more lockdowns in the future due to the pandemic, RAINN is working now with state and national leaders to implement change.

They want to see a child abuse reporting function in online classrooms and more efforts to teach children where to go and how to report abuse.

“I think if you’re a teacher or a social worker or you’re a volunteer who is providing meals to children who might have food security issues, it’s important to put something in those packages,” Cooper said.

Something, like slipping a pamphlet in homework packets or putting a pop-up in virtual learning modules.

“Some of them don’t have any other way to communicate with the outside world except when they are online,” Cooper said. Many of those who join a hotline chat find it during the time when they are online for school.

A group of senators, including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), introduced “The Emergency Funding for Child Protection Act” two weeks ago. It would provide $500 million for local child protective services to set up technology for virtual visits or to help with challenges in continuing home visits during COVID-19. It also would provide $1 billion for community-based child abuse prevention programs.

If you suspect a child you know is in trouble, or if you are a child who needs help, there are places you can turn right now.

Cooper said many times hotline counselors have called 911 while remaining connected with the child until help arrives.

Here are some resources that can help:

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