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Sheila Strange placed pinwheels in front of the Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County in 2014 to commemorate April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. Pinwheels have become a symbol to help raise awareness of child abuse. / Catoosa County

With the COVID-19 pandemic closing schools and most child care centers, there are fewer eyes on children — fewer eyes to spot suspected abuse and fewer eyes to report it.

The number of calls handled by the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline decreased nearly 19% during March this year compared to March 2019, falling from 9,934 to 8,070.

Locally, the drop is more drastic within the city of Chattanooga, 21%, than in the county, where there's been a 7% drop.

That doesn't mean less abuse is happening. It may just be going behind closed doors.

Higher levels of stress brought on by shelter-in-place orders and many parents either working from home or facing unemployment could lead to an increase in the number of children being physically or sexually abused or neglected, according to Department of Children's Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols.

A majority of reports of child abuse and neglect come from those who see children on a regular basis — child care workers, medical professionals, and teachers.

Almost 30% of reports of child abuse and neglect come from teachers, said Ruben Muriente, interim executive director at the Family Justice Center of Chattanooga.

"Obviously, that's not happening [now]," he said, but "the incidents are probably either the same or possibly going up with the same reasons of why domestic violence incidents are up — you have children now spending more time with the abuser."

The numbers are expected to drastically increase by the time children are back in school and have access to the adults with whom they have trusting relationships, said Kristen Pavlik McCallie, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center.

Ultimately, it'll be up to the public to pick up where the teachers and others have had to leave off.

"Neighbors know," Muriente said. "You know if a child lives in a suspicious home where there might be abuse going on, and I think the only way that we can help these children is to be vigilant. Be wary, and know that everybody in Tennessee is a mandated reporter."

McCallie recalled an example in which someone reached out to her and said, "'I have a friend who saw a message on their son's phone from their kid's classmate that said the kid didn't feel safe at home,' and the mom didn't know what to do," McCallie said. "So it's really important that folks know the reporting hotline, and that they can report online, and they can report anonymously."

Many times, people don't want to get involved in reporting child abuse because it feels very personal, McCallie said.

"And that's to be understood, but adults have a responsibility — they're the primary perpetrators, but they're also the ones that can stop the cycle."

Especially in cases of child sexual abuse, McCallie said there tends to be even more of a hesitancy to report.

"It's an uncomfortable issue," she said. "It's something people don't like to think about. But typically, annually, we serve between six and 800 children just in Hamilton County, and statistics tell us that one in 10 children is affected by child sexual abuse, and for every one report that comes forward, there are about five that never do. So this is a really pervasive problem."

TO REPORT SUSPECTED CHILD ABUSE

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call Tennessee’s child abuse hotline at 877-237-0004 or online at apps.tn.gov/carat. Reports can be anonymously. If a child is in eminent danger, call 911.

Source: Tennessee Department of Children’s Services

TO 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 eminent danger, call 911.

Do not delete any pictures or messages, as law enforcement will need to collect that as evidence. Do not further communicate with the individual.

Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

 

 

The Children's Advocacy Center continues to provide services, though some have been modified. For example, the organization has adjusted the way it schedules appointments to avoid overlap that might expose one family to another. A screening questionnaire helps make sure there's been no exposure to the virus.

The group also had to adjust outreach efforts. McCallie said her organization and The Chattery, a local nonprofit "learning collective," are partnering for Child Abuse Awareness Month to host two, 30-minute online classes on April 15 to educate the public on child abuse reporting, recognizing and understanding.

The abuse isn't only coming from inside the home right now. There has been a 239% increase in internet crimes against children across the state recently, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

"This is just the beginning," assistant special agent in charge Nick Christian said in a March 26 video posted to the bureau's Twitter.

In March last year, the bureau received 36 tips for internet crimes against children. This March, there were 122.

The bureau has enlisted help from its other units that aren't as busy to help triage the influx of tips coming in.

The tips come from electronic service providers like Google and Facebook, which are mandatory reporters of illegal content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Nationwide, between March 15 and March 21, the center reported receiving over 3,381 calls or online tips from the public, Christian said. From electronic service providers, it received almost 300,000 tips.

"Online predators are obviously quarantined as well, so they're going to have more time on the computer with your child," he said. "Your child may be online more than they have ever before [and] they may be contacted by someone that they're not used to being contacted by."

Now more than ever, Christian said, it's important to monitor children's online activity. But he encouraged approaching the issue in a nurturing manner by creating a safe environment in which the child feels comfortable talking to the parent, especially if parents find that their child is being targeted.

"The first instinct is to take all devices away, but that can sometimes be worse," he said. "They're going to find a way to get online, especially the older teens That's just a fact of the matter. So you want to just be nurturing and give them a place to come and say, 'Look, I'm not trying to prevent you from talking to your friends online, but I do want to help you protect yourself online from online predators.'

"The ultimate goal of an online predator is to meet your child, pick them up and take them and do nefarious things," he said. "That would be the ultimate thing that you don't want to happen."

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.

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