Child abuse experts have reason to believe that more children than ever are suffering from abuse while under COVID-19 restrictions and that they're also struggling to report their abuse in the absence of regular contact with school teachers and other adults in their lives.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline reports that in March, half of those calling for help were children. Normally, children make up about one-third of its callers.
"Especially for children experiencing sexual abuse, 'stay at home' doesn't mean 'safe at home,'" said Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, a leading anti-sexual violence organization that runs the hotline.
The hotline reports that two-thirds of the children who called with coronavirus-related concerns in March said their perpetrator was a family member and close to 8 in 10 said they were living with that perpetrator.
Child safety experts also fear that children suffering from abuse right now are unable to get help. A bipartisan congressional group says that many states have seen "significant drops" in reports of suspected child abuse, including Florida, where the reports declined by 11% in March from the five-year average.
In a May 19 letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos they warned, "school closures and shelter-in-place orders, while necessary to fight the spread of this pandemic, are having dangerous, unintended consequences on our nation’s children."
The group is asking DeVos to issue guidance on how school systems can use online learning platforms to keep children safe. It wants state departments of education to require reporting functions on the platforms so that children themselves can report abuse. These functions could include online chats, email or voice reporting.
In addition, teachers can let their students know that they can help.
"Teachers should also be directed to remind children that a student can report abuse to them and that teachers can provide immediate assistance to children who may be experiencing abuse," said the congressional members.
Pastor Jimmy Hinton, a long-time abuse advocate in Pennsylvania, told CBN's Newswatch that it makes sense to let kids know that they can ask for help online.
"Children are spending lots of time online and while that opens them up to certain kinds of abuse," he said, "it also gives them a window and an avenue to reach out to people for help. They can do that discreetly."
Hinton also encourages people to actively look and listen for signs of abuse.
"Walk the streets. Look for signs of distress--yelling and screaming coming from houses," he said.
RAINN says children who are abused may have sexually transmitted infections or signs of trauma, in addition to exhibiting certain behaviors such as fears of being left alone at night or not wanting to be with particular people.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available by phone and online chat 24/7. It is free and confidential. Anyone can call it at 800-656-Hope.