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What to Know About Child Abuse in a Virtual World

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When the pandemic began, it was anticipated that because schools were closed and kids were staying home more than before, reports of child abuse and neglect would increase once school started back. Unfortunately, Sophie Phillips—the CEO of TexProtects—said that once school largely resumed, the state’s child welfare agency showed that reporting did increase back to usual numbers—and in some cases, higher than before.

Of course, there are still a number of kids learning from a distance. We have to ask: What about them? How can teachers and other adults (anyone over 18 in the state of Texas is considered a mandated reporter) look out for abuse or neglect in a virtual world?

Like you would imagine, it isn’t necessarily cut and dry.

Phillips says that children who are being abused will not always directly tell an adult, because they’re afraid—but if they do make an outcry, it’s important to listen.

Children may express the abuse or neglect through indirect means, such as in writing or on a call. This could be them saying they are frightened of an adult, that they’re experiencing depressive or suicidal thoughts, mentioning they have been left alone at home (if they’re very young) or with another younger sibling for long periods of time, or talking about sex more than is age appropriate.

If you are able to see the child through video, Phillips says to keep an eye out for what’s in the background in addition to what’s on the child’s person. For example, there could be unexplained bruises or marks on them; the child could be more withdrawn than usual; there might be a parent, caregiver, or other adult using harsh physical discipline; maybe the room is messy or in disarray; or there could be a dangerous object, such as an unsecured gun or knife, nearby.

Some of those examples may seem obvious, but abuse and neglect can sometimes be subtle. What if it’s not so easy to tell if a child’s disposition or home life is a result of abuse or neglect?

Let’s face it, some things you might see in a Zoom call could be normal results of stress from finances, relationships, the pandemic, you name it.

In a virtual world, you’re getting only part of the picture.

Phillips agrees. “It’s important for us to be aware that families are facing many challenges that are not signs of abuse or neglect, and that we are supportive of families in this time of need and not judgmental of their circumstances,” she says.

Here are a few things Phillips says you should keep in mind:

  • A child may be frequently absent from class due to a lack of technology or internet access.
  • A child may not complete assignments because their caregiver does not speak English and cannot help them, or parent work hours have shifted and they are less available to assist.
  • A child may act disruptive or withdrawn because a family member is ill.
  • A child may be dirty or disorganized because their caregiver is juggling work and other childcare obligations.

In these instances, it might be a good idea to contact the parents to set up a call or meeting to get the whole picture. If abuse is not a concern with a particular family, but they still need assistance, there are a variety of organizations that you can refer to parents.

Phillips recommends Help Me Grow (844/NTX-KIDS). This organization links families with community resources. It does so by using an information line that connects families with an experienced child development specialist who can provide education, resources and more for that family’s specific needs.

“But if you do believe a child is experiencing abuse or neglect,” Phillips adds, “you should feel confident in making a report because you are acting in good faith and in the best interest of the child.”

Remember: A report does not equate to a family being investigated or a child being removed from their parents. Phillips adds that reporting may be the only chance that child has at someone intervening and protecting them.

She also reminds us that it’s important for us all to learn the signs of abuse and neglect.

Some resources Phillips recommends includes this list of resources as well as the signs to recognize abuse during COVID-19. The Department of Family and Protective Services also has a page to help you recognize the four types of child abuse.

If you do need to make a report, you can do so by calling the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800/252-5400; online reports are accepted as well. The systems are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also report child maltreatment 24/7 at the ChildHelp hotline, 1-800/4-A-CHILD. Visit the website here.

Image courtesy of iStock.