By Kay Phelan
“When children are isolated, they can’t tell anyone until the end of the crisis, but it is still happening. Child abuse was an epidemic before the pandemic.”
—Julie Porterfield, CEO ECCAC
According to the non-profit information and networking resource that deals with all aspects of criminal justice, The Crime Report, with school closures lasting through this school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a worrisome trend has been reported in numerous states — dramatic decreases by one-third to one-half in child abuse hotline reporting.
It isn’t that there’s less abuse — these declines are similar to the decline in normal summer months, when mandated reporters such as classroom teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses and others required by law to report suspected abuse, see less of the children they care for or teach. Those are all opportunities to notice behavioral signs of abuse, like diminished school performance or social relationships, or in limited cases, physical evidence such as bruises. As both layoffs and alcohol usage climb in the U.S. and families are confined together to comply with stay-at-home orders, the risk of physical, emotional, and sexual violence climbs. The more stress an offender is under, the less able they are to control and manage their behavior. When this is over, a major increase in child abuse reports are expected.
The Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Centers (ECCAC) are anticipating the same increase to happen with this crisis. In these unprecedented pandemic times, the centers in Niceville and the Pierce Family Center in DeFuniak Springs are dealing directly with these issues. They have already adapted and stepped up with the community to help children. This has been a time to acknowledge the importance of the community working together to help prevent child abuse and neglect, and also to promote the social and emotional well-being of impacted children and their families.
For the safety of the children ECCAC serves, their centers’ lobbies have closed until it is deemed safe to re-open. Although the lobbies are closed, the centers and its agency partners are still responding to and investigating child abuse cases.
Their therapists are conducting virtual “tele-therapy” sessions with children and staff is hard at work from home. Many members of ECCAC’s team partners are considered essential workers, such as law enforcement, prosecutors, child protection teams and the Department of Children and Families. Even ECCAC’s therapy dogs have been on the tele-therapy sessions which has been a big hit with the children and a big help for them to open up to their therapist.
Distillery 98, located in Santa Rosa Beach, was kind enough to donate five gallons of sanitizer. Velia Lala, an ECCAC board member and owner of Velia Lala Designs in Ft. Walton Beach, along with her team, have been making face masks. They have donated more than 70 face masks in the past several weeks. Then there is long-time volunteer at the Niceville Center, Bernadette Williams. For the past five years, she has been an admin volunteer helping the staff. Now that she is adhering to Florida’s stay-at-home directive, she got busy and has made over 50 face masks for ECCAC and their partners.
In addition, because schools have been closed, many, if not most, students in Okaloosa and Walton Counties either had, or have received Internet devices so they can continue the learning process on-line.
So, ECCAC has created child abuse prevention information videos that include internet safety that are designed just for students and hopes to have them available in the near future. Please visit the website at www.ECCAC.org and Facebook page for updates.
ECCAC is in its 20th year of operation. It has provided more than 150,000 services at no cost to include mental health therapy, crisis intervention, referrals to other community providers, interviews and medical services to more than 14,000 children and their families. They will be hosting a 20th year celebration at the Niceville Center on October 27. If abuse is suspected, call the anonymous Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.