April is Child Abuse Awareness Month and a local nonprofit is sounding the alarm on some concerning new data.
Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center is the only agency of its kind fighting child abuse in Dallas County. DCAC reads through thousands of reports and then coordinates the cases that rise to the level of a criminal offense, bringing together CPS, law enforcement, medical and the district attorney’s office.
After that, staff then provides healing services for the child victim and their non-offending family members.
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However, the pandemic and the winter storm have thrown a huge wrench in the life-changing work they do.
In their last fiscal year, DCAC read over 28,000 reports of child abuse in Dallas County involving over 8,000 children. That's the highest number of clients to date.
The state of Texas served 61,000 victims of child abuse in 2020, a three percent rise from the fiscal year 2019.
So why the increase?
Carrie Paschall, DCAC chief investigative and support services officer, said the isolation of COVID-19 has created opportunities for abuse and a decrease in reporting that did not exist prior to the coronavirus pandemic, creating more cases and longer exposure or duration of abuse before a report is made.
"Unfortunately for a lot of people, home is not a safe place. If you don’t have a safe place for quarantine and all of the sudden you’re quarantined with your abuser, it just really enhances the emotional affects of those factors in your life," she said.
In abuse cases under normal circumstances, children often get respite from their abuser during school hours. But during COVID-19 lockdowns, children can be with the abuser 24/7.
At the beginning of the shelter-at-home orders in Spring 2020, DCAC saw a significant drop in reports of child abuse. However, that quickly changed when schools reopened, with numbers rebounding when children had increased access to a trusted adult.
Just last month, DCAC conducted more than 260 forensic interviews, its highest number of forensic interviews in one month to date. The winter storm contributed to a backlog in reporting that spilled over into March, but in general, Paschall said children having more exposure to teachers and staff during schools reopening has caused reports to rebound.
"I think because we are starting to open back up, our professional reporters are doing their jobs. I think the community is now being able to have access to more children that have been cooped up at home and not been seen by others, so we're getting those reports from those people,” said Paschall.
Another big concern right now is mental health.
The organization is seeing an increase in suicides and clients across the state presenting with suicidal ideation because of stress, lack of support and isolation.
"We’re having a lot of young children and teenagers report feelings of hopelessness, isolation, just missing that human connection and the structure has really had an effect on their lives," Paschall said.
DCAC worries that as schools become fully open, there is a high likelihood statistics will surge across the state.
“It's frightening to think what stories are to come. What is coming our way? What do we not know yet? We know that things are happening but what is still yet undiscovered and unreported?" Paschall said.
How to Help
DCAC hopes this awareness can make a difference.
Right now, the organization is offering free online training that teaches people how to recognize child abuse. Use the discount code SAVEJANE for the course “Recognizing and Reporting Child Abuse” and code GETEDUCATED for the course “Keeping Your Child Safe in the Real and Digital World.”
“Look at everyone else’s children as if they were your own,” Paschall said. “Be aware, keep your ears and eyes open. If you see or hear something that concerns you, do something. Make that phone call to the police or Child Protective Services. Maybe you’re wrong but maybe you’re not. And if you’re wrong you figure that out on the backend.“
They're also taking donations of new toys, children and teen clothes, diapers, cleaning supplies and toiletries they give to clients every single month. Click here for more information.
DCAC’s multigenerational auxiliary, the Save Jane Society, is also hosting a Pinwheels of Hope Yard Sign Campaign. Each sign purchased supports a child receiving critical healing services at DCAC.