By Dr. Paul Zeitz
As COVID-19 cases escalate across the nation, a hidden tragedy of the pandemic is taking place in the supposed safe shelter of our homes.
Families sheltering at home are increasingly struggling with social isolation, financial insecurity, stress, and anxiety, and with it, child abuse—in all of its forms—is steadily rising.
Right now, vulnerable children are hidden away from the army of caring adults who would have once protected them: friends, family members,neighbors, teachers, doctors, dentists, and even child protective service professionals. Millions of children lack access to the safe spaces, services, and people our schools provide. Worse still, many states have sidelined child welfare workers and have failed to provide personal protective equipment to ensure that these professionals can reach our most at-risk youth—in their very own homes.
What reporting reveals
We have clues as to what’s going on behind closed doors. Since Americans began staying home earlier this year, states have recorded a significant decrease in child abuse reports, compared to last year, while abuse-related injuries requiring hospitalization have clearly increased. At the same time, the number of children accessing crisis hotlines is on the rise.
In a world without doctors, teachers, child protective services, and advocates to identify and report child abuse, only the most violent cases are surfacing, and reports of severe abuse are growing.
In addition, large numbers of children are spending unprecedented time online. While virtual communities have become central to learning, support, and play for children, they also increase exposure to online violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse. There has been a marked increase in reports of online exploitation of children since the pandemic began. While it may stem from a variety of factors, we know that COVID-19 isolation is exacerbating this already urgent issue.
Families and sexual abuse
Sadly, sexual exploitation and abuse aren’t limited to online strangers. It’s believed that roughly one-third of people who sexually abuse a child are family members. I was one of those children.
Breaking the silence around my own experience of intrafamilial sexual abuse—incest—was one of the most difficult things I have ever faced. For almost 40 years, I existed in various states of amnesia, denial, anger, and shame. Finally, I found the words to express what happened to me, the courage to speak and write them, and a family and community who listened and placed me on the path to healing and dignity. I was lucky, and I’m committed to working with other survivors and allies in a movement to Keep Kids Safe.
Four ways to take action now
As a member of the Keep Kids Safe movement—a united front of adult survivors of national leaders fighting against child abuse and neglect—I am calling on Congress to invest significant resources to strengthen child safety and protection programs, including at least $300 million in emergency funding in the next COVID-19 relief package.
What can we all do to ensure this happens?
1. Sign the letter.
Add your name to our letter to Congress, which calls for urgent action to protect children. With a simple click, you are making a powerful statement to #KeepKidsSafe. Join survivors and supporters from across the nation who want to ensure every child is safe at home and online.
2. Share #KeepKidsSafe with your networks.
Reach out to your networks and encourage them to join our groundbreaking, united front of national leaders and adult survivors of child abuse and exploitation. By visiting our action hub (www.keep-kids-safe.org), your friends, neighbors, and associates can contact members of Congress directly, learn about preventing sexual violence and abuse against children, and spread the word to others.
3. Post on social media.
By using our social media toolkit, you can urge your supporters and community to demand that Congress prioritize the safety and well-being of all children as part of our national COVID-19 response.
To raise awareness about the impact of child sexual abuse—and to showcase the strength of survivors—we are asking individuals to share a childhood photo or a brief story of survivorship and resiliency on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter with the hashtag #KeepKidsSafe.
4. Commit to preventing violence.
Here are the facts: In the U.S., at least one in seven children have experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year. One in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18. But here’s another fact: Every adult can play a role in ending violence against children. Learn about small steps you can take to #KeepKidsSafe and prevent child abuse.
Child abuse, in every form, is a global human threat. It is creating generation after generation of family dysfunction and mental illness, and it’s a fundamental driver of conflict across the world.
It is time we treated this human threat as the true health crisis it is. If not now, when?
About the author:
Dr. Paul Zeitz is a physician, public health expert, and award-winning global justice and human rights advocate. He is the founder of Build A Movement 2020 and author of Waging Justice: A Doctor’s Journey to Speak Truth and Be Bold. Learn more at drpaulzeitz.org.