After a dip in child abuse reports in 2020 during the pandemic, the Children's Advocacy Center in Northwest Georgia has seen an influx of kids who are suspected to be victims of abuse in the first half of 2021.
Many providers in the area had predicted reports would drop amid the pandemic as students had less access to teachers and other mandated reporters who are key to spotting signs of child abuse.
"Those children just didn't have an opportunity to have that outlet to tell," said Anthony Dye, executive director of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Children's Advocacy Center. "We kind of figured going into the pandemic back in March, we kind of knew that things were going to slip down. And then once they did return to school we figured, I hate to say it, but the floodgates were gonna open."
Even though Dye said the numbers of cases weren't as large as anticipated in 2020 right when schools reopened in the fall, now in 2021 referrals have begun to rise.
The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit advocacy center, which covers Walker, Catoosa, Dade and Chattooga counties, has conducted 175 forensic interviews in 2021, compared to 107 in 2020 and 154 in 2019 in the same time frame. By the end of the year, it is projected to conduct 350, the highest number ever, according to Dye.
Like others across the nation, the center works with local law enforcement and other organizations to streamline specialized care for young victims. Forensic interviews allow children to sit down with trained interviewers and tell their stories, while a member of law enforcement and a Department of Family and Children Services worker watch from another room. The session is also recorded for prosecution purposes, which helps limit the number of times young victims have to recount their abuse.
How to report abuse
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call Georgia's child abuse hotline at 1-855-GA-CHILD or 1-855-422-4453. Call Tennessee's child abuse hotline at 877-237-0004 or online at apps.tn.gov/carat. Reports can be anonymous. If a child is in imminent danger, call 911. Source: Tennessee Department of Children's Services and the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Children's Advocacy CenterTO REPORT CHILD DIGITAL EXPLOITATION Visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Cyber Tip Line at MissingKids.org/cybertipline to file a report or call 1-800-THE-LOST. If the child is in imminent danger, call 911. Do not delete any pictures or messages, as law enforcement will need to collect those as evidence. Do not further communicate with the individual.Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
Sites also offer medical exams, continued care and therapy beyond the initial interviews. The Northwest Georgia center now has a waitlist of about 20 children.
While numbers are elevated in Northwest Georgia, Executive Director Kristen McCallie of the Children's Advocacy Center in Hamilton County said the Chattanooga area is on target for an average year when it comes to the number of forensic interviews, although the office has seen more severe cases in the last year than usual.
In 2019 at the Hamilton County center, 638 forensic interviews were conducted. That number dropped to 576 in 2020, but so far 299 have happened in the first half of 2021, closer to a "normal" year.
In a previous interview with the Times Free Press, McCallie said the center was also preparing for delayed disclosure of abuse from the past year, something Dye said isn't uncommon even under more normal circumstances.
"Whether there's a pandemic or not, you're always going to have those delayed disclosures," Dye said. "The average age of someone that discloses child abuse would shock you. It's above 50 years old."
While pinpointing an exact cause of the increase in 2021 would be difficult, Dye wrote in an email that the enactment of Erin's Law in Georgia in 2018 has helped bolster educating students on body safety and how to report abuse, which may have made students more comfortable with disclosure. McCallie also said the Hamilton County center has been working on preventative education, with more than 4,000 children and adults taking part in its prevention programs in the last year.
Dye said while the influx of reports in Northwest Georgia has created a strain for resources and a need for another counselor at the mostly grant- and fundraiser-funded center, his staff has worked hard to provide quality services during the pandemic.
"I've got a wonderful staff here, and they do great work. We take care of each other," he said. "One way that we've made it through the pandemic and we make it through these difficult cases is we all practice self care."
"We want people to know that we're here for the kids," he said. "And we're willing to help and we're able to."
Contact Tierra Hayes at email@example.com.
Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Children's Advocacy Center forensic interviews
Annual total: 2017: 237 2018: 284 2019: 308 2020: 260 2021 Projected: 350January-July totals 2017: 126 2018: 143 2019: 154 2020: 107 2021: 175Source: Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Children's Advocacy Center