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Stay-at-Home Orders May Increase Child Abuse Incidents

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. But this April could bring unprecedented risk to those susceptible to child abuse.

Millions of people across the United States are under stay-at-home orders. Americans have been told not go to work, to school, or to leave their home aside from seeking medical care or for grocery shopping.

It is estimated that 311 million people in at least 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged or required to remain at home for a significant period.

This response to the threat of the coronavirus and its COVID-19 illness may be a reasonable step to take in this pandemic. However, it comes as a risk to those who may be victims of domestic violence or child abuse.

[Related: Five Facts about Child Sexual Abuse You Need to Know]

Nearly 700,000 children are abused in the U.S. annually, according to the National Children’s Alliance. “An estimated 683,000 children (unique incidents) were victims of abuse and neglect in 2015, the most recent year for which there is national data,” the NCA reported.

“That year, approximately 3.4 million children received an investigation or alternative response from child protective services agencies. In addition, 2.3 million children received prevention services,” the NCA added.

With Stay-at-Home Orders in Place, Victims May Be Especially in Danger

Now, with stay-at-home orders in place, victims may be especially in danger as a result of parental stress from job loss, restricted food sources, financial problems, and the all-day confinement of families remaining together in tight quarters for a long period of time.

Whereas before stay-at-home orders victims of child abuse might have been able to get out of the house and away from the threat and to seek help, that option is not available to many victims right now.

In addition to the dangers of being confined with a perpetrator of child abuse, victims may now be especially at risk because they are unlikely to come in contact with people outside their immediate family, such as clergy, teachers, school friends or other parents or friends who might have been able to report the abuse or help the victim seek shelter.

Increase in Domestic Violence and Hotline Calls

Some areas have already experienced an increase in domestic violence. For example, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, has seen an increase in domestic violence hotline calls. In addition, the avenues to seeking court-ordered relief are almost closed.

[Related: Traversing the Difficulties of Domestic Violence Calls]

“While most sessions in Mecklenburg County’s district court have been postponed, domestic violence court — which provides civil protective orders and hosts criminal proceedings — is still operating, but with limited hours, fewer courtrooms and fewer resources to help families,” the Charlotte Observer reported.

Protective orders are still being issued, but victims are having greater difficulty receiving them.

In light of these increased risks, it is important that law enforcement and citizens pay particular attention to possible indicators that a child might be a victim. Police officers responding to domestic violence calls should take steps to separate the fighting parties even when a domestic battery has not occurred. This could include assisting the child who is most at risk to seek temporary shelter at a friend or family member’s house, despite the stay-at-home orders.

[Related: How Officers Can Help Prosecutors Convict Domestic Violence Perpetrators]

Social media also serve as an important tool to detect someone who may be a victim of domestic violence or child abuse. In addition to providing a channel of communication that the predator could not know about, social media provide an opportunity for friends and family members to observe when something appears out of the normal and could possibly be an indicator of domestic violence. These could include pictures of children with bruises at various stages of healing posted on social media.

[Related: Tips for Investigating Cases of Child Sex Abuse]

Other people, including neighbors and even delivery service employees, might be able to assist in recognizing signs of child abuse during this unprecedented time. They might witness abnormal occurrences at a neighbor’s home such as a good deal of yelling or arguing in the apartment or on the front lawn. Hearing children crying often could also be a sign of possible abuse.

Even during these stay-at-home times, we all need to be vigilant in recognizing signs of domestic violence or child abuse that may increase as a result of shelter-in-place orders.

child abuseAbout the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University. He has had speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he addressed the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, police stress management, homeland security, contraband interdiction, and intelligence gathering. To contact her, email IPSauthors@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at APU. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.

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