Child sexual abuse rate drops, misleading public

Pablo Burgos, center, plays hoola hoop with classmates during recess at Escondido Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif., Tuesday, March 7, 2006. More than four years after the No Child Left Behind law required that all students above 2nd grade be tested, nearly 2 million children's test scores still aren't being counted under the the law's required racial categories an Associated Press review found. California, for instance, isn't counting the scores of more than 400,000 children. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NASHUA – Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced New Hampshire schools online and eliminated in-person student/teacher interaction, reports of child sexual abuse have fallen sharply according to the Granite State Children’s Alliance, New Hampshire’s network of child advocacy centers.

Granite State Children’s Alliance chief executive officer Joy Barrett said that for some kids, the stay-at-home isn’t safe.

“With remote learning, and our schools going online, there has been a precipitous drop in reports of child abuse,” she said. “This equates to a 67% decrease in referrals to child advocacy centers in New Hampshire for forensic interviews for child sexual abuse, which is a staggering statistic.”

The Granite State Children’s Alliance supports the network of 11 child advocacy centers in New Hampshire. But what makes Barrett’s role unique is that the New Hampshire chapter actually operates four of the eleven centers.

“I actually operate the center that’s in Nashua,” she said. “And I operate Manchester, Keene and Laconia CACs. So as much as being kind of the 30,000-foot perspective of child advocacy centers, I’m also kind of on the ground with the operation of them which brings me very close to the issue.”

The alliance knows there is an issue at hand, not when they are barraged with people reporting child sexual abuse, but rather the opposite – when reports stop being filed.

“The first indicator of a problem is that reports in the Department of Children, Youth and Families are down,” Barrett explained. “Joe Ribsam who is the director of DCYF, actually does quite an impressive data presentation to all of us who work in this field. And although there have been varying volume of reports through the past ten weeks, they’ve dropped as low as 50%.”

Barrett’s staff has been contacting children who have been through the center check in on them to ensure that “everyone is okay.”

“I know that DCYF, with the caseloads that they have, are doing the same,” she said. “There really is a large spectrum of families that kind of fall into this category. There are some families who need help because of the stresses that they’re under.”

Barrett said there is a prevention measure that the Granite State Children’s Alliance wants to stitch into families so matters don’t get to the points of abuse and neglect.

“But there is the other end of that spectrum,” she continued, “of children that are in dangerous environments, who are being harmed while we’re not seeing them. And so for us, it’s all about getting eyes on kids.”

Barrett said the organization can only help the kids that they can reach. So, they’ve developed an educational program called “Know and Tell,” which is about knowing the signs of abuse and telling responsible authorities when you suspect a child needs help. The website, developed in New Hampshire, is knowandtell.org.

“What we’re trying to encourage is for people to become educated on this issue,” she said. “Awareness is one thing, and that just lets you know that the problem exists. But there really is stuff that we can do about it. Education is really important and a call to action is what we’re looking for.”

The biggest concern is what the agencies don’t see. New educational tools for recognizing and reporting abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic including five actions all adults can take to protect children from abuse and neglect, warning signs of abuse that may be recognized during video communication and tips for communicating during remote learning are now available and free to the public on the website.

“We can’t expect video chat to convey manifestations of physical abuse or sexual abuse,” Barrett said. “And even that narrow window is closing with the school year, further isolating victims.”

To get people’s attention, South Boston filmmaker Terrence F. Hayes directed a public service announcement using phantom car crashes.

“With everyone’s mind consumed by the pandemic, I had to create something visually arresting to stop them in their tracks and pay attention to another clear and present public health crisis,” said Hayes, who co-wrote the PSA titled “What We Don’t See” with writer David McHugh.

The National Sexual Assault hotline operated by RAINN recently revealed that more than half of all calls were from minors, 79% of whom reported living with their perpetrator. The national non-profit expects reports of child abuse to increase significantly as stay-at-home orders are lifted.