School isn't every kid's favorite place to be. However, for a child that's experiencing abuse, a classroom can act as a safe haven.
Now that students are back in the classroom, reports of abuse have begun to climb. But is this a sign of increased abuse or increased awareness?
2020 was a shock to all of us, especially our children. School work went from in-person to online in an instant. For children in abusive situations, they no longer had a safe place to go.
“A lot of our child abuse cases are reported from school districts and doctor's offices. And the big thing that when COVID did hit, everyone went into lockdown and everyone stayed home, those cases dropped," said Cierra Shipley, public information officer with the Waco Police Department.
During that time, the Waco PD Crimes Against Children Unit went from seeing an average of three to four cases a day to not seeing a case for up to two weeks sometimes.
Fast forward to now. We are in the middle of a new school year, and most students have returned to in-person learning. A return to normalcy also means a return of child abuse reports.
“That was a 600% increase from last April to this April. So we went from that amount of few cases in April of 2020 to 600 more times the cases in April for this year," said Dr. Kerry Burkley, associate director of the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children.
Does this also mean there's been an increase in child abuse? Dr. Burkley says not exactly.
“Child abuse is happening across the board," he explained. "We believe that for every one case reported, at least 10 cases go unreported. But we, we're seeing more numbers because kids are in a safer place, and they're able to tell people who they trust, and mostly it's a teacher.”
“When they're not going to school, they're not going to their regular scheduled doctor's appointments… that's where those mandatory reporters are," said Shipley. "And without those mandatory reporters seeing something that might be off in the child, that means there's no cases being reported.”
Mandatory reporters are on the frontlines of protecting children from abuse, but it's not just up to them.
“We want families or individuals who suspect child abuse, just make the report," said Dr. Burkley. "You don't have to investigate it. You don't have to know for sure or certainty that it is happening. If you suspect that the child is being abused, whether physically or sexually, just make the report and allow those who investigate these, these referrals to do their job."
Signs of abuse and neglect can range from unexplained bruises and welts to behavior extremes or abrupt changes.
You don't need concrete evidence of abuse before reporting. Officials say a gut feeling can be enough.
"The state law stipulates as long as the person makes a report in good faith, they're not trying to get anyone in trouble, but they honestly believe that something is wrong, then that's when you should make that call and allow those who investigate to do their job," said Dr. Burkley.
“The number one thing we say is if you feel something is off, don't be afraid to say something," said Shipley. "It doesn't hurt to at least put it on our radar so we can look into it further and make sure that the kid is okay and safe.”
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you can call your local police department or the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services' abuse hotline at 1-800-252-5400.
If it is an emergency, call 911.
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