Indiana advocacy center provides community-based model for preventing child abuse during pandemic

By Matthew Kelly, Wichita Journalism Collaborative

During the first four months of the fall 2020 semester, Kansas’s child welfare agency received almost 5,000 fewer reports of child abuse and neglect than during the same period in 2019 — almost a 20% decline.

The raging COVID-19 pandemic forced many school districts to adopt remote or hybrid learning models, but for vulnerable children suffering abuse at home, the “stay home, stay safe” mantra rang hollow.

“The reason that teachers are such important bulwarks against child abuse is because they are probably the adults outside of the family that establish the deepest rapport with children,” said Blake Warenik, communications director for the National Children’s Alliance, which oversees 900 child advocacy centers around the country.

“The signs of abuse are a lot of times things that are very, very subtle. It takes a lot of getting to know a child and getting to know their mannerisms, getting to understand their body language and other signs to begin to set off those alarms,” Warenik said.

Without that face-to-face interaction, educators have fewer opportunities to spot signs of abuse and speak openly with students about their home life. 

“The reality is, you know, sometimes you can’t reach students,” said Stephanie Anderson, program specialist for Wichita Public Schools’ Counseling Services.

It’s impossible to guarantee confidentiality in virtual counseling sessions when other family members could appear in the background at any second, and dropping into virtual classrooms is a far cry from the casual interactions counselors are accustomed to having with students on a daily basis at school.

“During passing periods and before school, after school, counselors are in the hallway. They have eyes on kids,” Anderson said. “They are able to have that eye contact or smile or little wave or something throughout the day.”

Those exchanges often act as a trigger for students to come talk to their counselor, or for counselors to approach students, Anderson said. Without them, the red flags of abuse are more likely to go unnoticed.

Susie’s Place equips Indiana children with abuse education, resources

Although reports of abuse to child protective service were down nationwide in 2020, a December study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the proportion of emergency room visits related child abuse increased last year. Many vulnerable children didn’t get the help they needed until they were seriously injured.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the social and economic effects of mitigation measures, such as loss of income, increased stress related to parental child care and schooling responsibilities, and increased substance use and mental health conditions among adults increase the risk for child abuse and neglect,” the report states.

When schools shut down last spring and mandatory reporters lost face-time with students, Indiana saw roughly a 40% drop in reports of crimes against children to the statewide hotline.

“It was glaringly obvious to us that children were going to continue to be in unsafe homes and that we needed to provide them a mechanism to reach out when they felt unsafe or they needed access to help,” said Emily Perry, executive director of Susie’s Place, which operates three child advocacy centers in the state.

Art from a free coloring book Susie’s Place has distributed and made available online.

Susie’s Place partnered with the central Indiana Plainfield school district and took a proactive, integrated approach to providing children with valuable information and outside lines of communication to trusted adults.

“When the kids went home, we were sending food trucks out into the community to deliver sack lunches to the kids, and in their sack lunches was a bookmark that had the five child safety steps that we teach,” Perry said.

Those five steps — Know What’s Up, Spot Red Flags, Make a Move, Talk It Up and No Blame/No Shame — are part of the Monique Burr Foundation’s Child Safety Matters curriculum. 

Reporting procedures were posted on food trucks, and the delivery staff were trained to look for signs of abuse and neglect.

When educators identified a student they were concerned about, a school resource officer and counselor came together to deliver pizza to the home and lay eyes on the student. When necessary, they filed a report with child protective services.

Susie’s Place also provided information about the signs of child sexual assault and abuse to Meals on Wheels recipients, whose neighbors and grandchildren were engaged in remote learning. They distributed similar literature about warning signs and resources at the local food pantry and grocery stores.

“It was a full-court press here in Plainfield and it really turned out to be a great approach to educating and outreach in our community,” Perry said.

“It really took that community approach to making sure the adults that were responsible for keeping kids safe were still cued in on the need for that even during the pandemic, and that our kids that needed to access safety knew how to report that through their e-learning platforms to their teachers, faculty and staff or through their food truck drivers.”

But quantifying the effectiveness of such prevention programs isn’t easy.

“One of the challenges of child abuse prevention is you don’t know the incidents of abuse that you prevent because you’ve prevented them successfully,” Perry said.

Comparing the raw number of abuse reports during the pandemic to any other time can also be a faulty indicator.

But Perry started to notice that child abuse victims brought to Susie’s Place for forensic interviews were speaking up about how they accessed help from home through the channels her organization had set up.

“We were able to then see it come full-circle when kids would come in and demonstrate to us that they received the information and they acted upon it,” Perry said.

“It was a very interesting dynamic of teaching the access in the community and then seeing kids incorporate that into their life and experience and using it then to access help.”

Diana Schunn, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County, said her organization provided child abuse prevention training to about 7,000 people in 2020, including virtual sessions for area school districts. But it’s been difficult to keep pace during the pandemic.

“We’ve had a couple of slower months there, but overall, we still continue to find ways to provide community education,” Schunn said.

One way they’ve done so is by providing child abuse education to Cox Communications workers who enter homes to install internet modems and cable equipment.

“The reality is that we would all love to work ourselves out of a job where there is no child abuse, but we also know that that’s not realistic,” Schunn said. “There’s always work to be done. Every service that we provide has room for opportunities of growth and further development, so we always need to be thinking creatively.”

In Wichita, the majority of elementary students in USD 259  returned to classrooms last week after moving completely to remote learning in early December. Many middle and high school students will begin a hybrid learning model on Jan. 25, with two days of in-person learning a week.

Students whose families opted for remote learning will not return to face-to-face instruction. Susan Arensman, spokesperson for Wichita Public Schools,  said roughly 40% of Wichita students are expected to continue learning online for the rest of the school year.

Anyone with immediate concerns for a child’s safety should call 911. The Kansas Department for Children and Families’ child abuse and neglct hotline is 1-800-922-5330.