Author: Lucy Merrill
With schools teaching online and jobs made virtual, families are spending more time in the home than ever before. For some, this is a time for family bonding and togetherness, but for many victims of sexual abuse, it means being trapped inside with an abuser. Between May and June of 2020, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) saw the highest demand for services in its 26-year history, and half of the messages they received at their online National Sexual Assault Hotline were from children.
In March, as stay-at-home orders and school closures forced Americans into the confines of their own homes, unintended consequences ensued. School closures protected millions of children from contracting COVID-19, but this protection came at a price. For some children, that price was the loss of subsidized meals they had been provided at school, or a set-back in their education due to a lack of personal technology for virtual learning, but for others, the mere notion of being sent to stay in their own homes presented dangers.
School is often a safe haven for many victims of child sexual abuse, as it presents an escape from home as well as exposure to adults outside of the immediate family who may be a lifeline in reporting the abuse. Teachers and guidance counselors, as well as sports coaches and parents of friends, all function as “mandatory reporters”, trusted adults in the child’s life who may witness the signs of abuse and report their suspicions to authorities.
With in-person classes and recreation activities cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic, keeping children out of the watchful eyes of these mandatory reporters, official reports of child sexual abuse dropped dramatically. This drop likely reflected an increase in unreported cases, rather than a drop in the incidence of sexual abuse.
Aware of the potential consequences of being away from school, bipartisan efforts in Congress aimed to protect vulnerable children. In May, Debbie Wassermen Schultz (D-FL) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) encouraged State Departments of Education to require a reporting function on their online learning platforms, in order to make it accessible to children, and to ask teachers to remind children that they are there to help in the case of abuse.
Although official reports remained low, children continued to reach out to RAINN’s hotline throughout the beginning of the pandemic, as the organization saw a 22% increase in child calls. In March, 79% of children who contacted the hotline were living with their abuser, and 67% identified their perpetrator as a family member.
As kids were home from school, other family members were also forced to be at home. Stay-at-home orders kept many adults away from work, as companies shifted their employees to working virtually. Other family members lost jobs, as the economy took a massive hit. The pandemic also brought home older siblings who may have been away at college or were now out of a job. These factors all contributed to potential abusers being brought home and/or confined with their child victim for long periods of time.
Under strict quarantine, children struggled to call for help, unable to talk to guidance counselors/other trusted adults, and afraid to call a hotline from home for fear of getting caught by their abuser. Once stay-at-home orders were lifted and the country began to open up, however, RAINN received an influx of requests for their services. A total of 60,437 people received help from their service programs in May and June, 18% higher than in 2019, which made it the highest in RAINN’s 26-years of existence. With half of visitors to their help line, which services the most urgent cases, being minors, RAINN witnessed the effects of young children being quarantined with abusive family members.
On top of the immediate effects of being under lockdown and forced to spend more time with family members, the stresses of COVID-19 had other means of increasing incidence of child sexual abuse. Unemployment rates have risen astronomically, the effects of which, coupled with the stress and anxiety fueled by the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, have led to rises in depression and substance abuse. Substance use disorders and financial strain are two primary factors contributing to violence. In this way, COVID-19 has created the perfect storm for the frequency and severity of abuse to increase.
The burden of child sexual abuse, however, was masked by the endless headlines reporting the latest news on the pandemic. RAINN and other organizations such as Family Support Line did all that we could for those who reached out to us, but not all victims have the ability to call for help themselves. Voices of children went unheard, silent cries with no answer. As the health care system became increasingly flooded with the burden of the COVID-19 response, addressing child abuse could no longer be a priority.
As more voices went unheard, silent cases of sexual abuse were leaving their physical and psychological mark on children across the country. The increased threat of abuse alone is enough to create strains on the mental health of a child. Hypervigilance, or the state of anticipating danger, leads to mental and physical exhaustion and perpetuates toxic stress. The effects of this stress then expand as children are unable to receive a form of relief through school, recreational activities, and hanging out with friends.
Child sexual abusers in the home, however, are not the only ones taking advantage of children being kept at home. Unable to attend school in person, children were spending significantly more time online. RAINN estimates that screen time was up by 50% in children at the height of the pandemic. Adults, too, are spending more time online, as jobs are made virtual and people have more time on their hands. This increase in online activity is a hot bed for further increased risk for children. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found a 106% increase from 2019 in reports of suspected online child sexual abuse and exploitation made to its CyberTipline in March, surpassing 200 million reports. As adults are spending more time online, the volume of digital content being produced was increasing exponentially, making it harder to weed out, a problem that was exaggerated by companies like Facebook and YouTube, who have strayed from relying on human content moderators due to COVID shutdowns and are therefore relying more on automated systems to monitor content. This has a varying range of effects. Some minors stuck at home with an abusive family member may become victims to live-stream sex abuse or other forms of cybersex trafficking.
Spending more time unsupervised online, children are even more likely to be exposed to pornographic material, as well as to perpetrators seeking to exploit children through sexual coercion or sex trafficking. The economic crisis is fueling the susceptibility of minors to this type of coercion. As families are plunged into poverty, children have been forced into the streets in search of money. This lack of financial stability is one of the drivers which renders people vulnerable to human trafficking, a situation many children are finding themselves in today.
Here at Family Support Line, we hope to aid in the effort to pick up the pieces of the mess COVID-19 will leave behind, and to heal the hurt of children facing sexual abuse as a result of the pandemic. If you or someone you know has been experiencing child sexual abuse, please explore our website and our services. We are here to listen, and to act.