JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The staff at Cambria County's Circle of Support Child Advocacy Center say they’ve seen an uptick in 2021 in the number of children they're seeing and an increase in the severity of incidents of alleged abuse.
Diana Grosik, executive director, said the center first saw a decrease in cases in 2020 after schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They lost access to the trusted adults that they could confide in, who then would report the abuse to ChildLine, who then would get Children and Youth and our services involved,” Grosik said.
The CAC helps to streamline the process children go through when they are reporting alleged abuse by having all resources in one place, such as forensic interviewers and medical examiners.
The center’s data show that 290 children were served in 2019, then 193 in 2020. But 184 children have been served so far in 2021, with more than three months still to go in the year.
Grosik said the center is handling about a case a day and is on track to see about 275 cases this year.
In many years prior, Grosik said, some referrals would be for what is known as grooming behavior and wouldn't lead to charges. This year, a higher percentage of the cases the center sees lead to investigations, she said.
“To me I see the severity, the seriousness of the cases, being worse than what they typically would be," Grosik said, "or that we would typically see if I took the totality of our cases for the entire year. ... If I looked at that versus our typical cases and what we’ve been seeing, I think we’ve had cases where the abuse was more severe, they endure more abuse for longer or we didn’t necessarily get the intervention early enough to stop the abuse from happening.”
Trapped at home
Grosik said that she believes the fact that children spent more time in their homes during pandemic-related lockdowns and quarantines added to the severity of abuse that counselors are seeing.
“Some of these kids were in situations where they had no one to tell, so therefore they kind of endured a longer level, a more severe, more serious abuse," she said, "and they also were in quarantine and they were stuck at home during the pandemic.
“Home was the safest place for all of us, for the most part, but we know that – especially with sexual abuse – over 50% of the alleged perpetrators are parents or caregivers in some capacity or relatives. So we know what happened – these perpetrators had increased access to these kids and these kids had decreased access to outside supports.”
Michael Oliver, executive director of Victim Services Inc., who has also served on the CAC’s board, said that one factor that changed the numbers of incidents reported was children not being seen by educators at schools.
“The education system plays a huge role in identifying child victims,” he said. “They get into school and teachers lay eyes on them, counselors lay eyes on them. A lot of referrals are generated from the education system, and that’s just a direct result of those teachers noticing changes in the kids’ behavior or even their attitude, or physical changes or seeing bruising or seeing the neglect.”
Decrease in referrals
With many services going online during the pandemic, Grosik said, children were less likely to disclose abuse.
“My thought, too, with that is kids lost access to in-person therapy,” she said. “We know a lot of therapists started doing remote services and if you’re in the home doing services, talking to a therapist, and your perpetrator is in the same room with you – maybe they’re next door and you’re in your bedroom – you’re less likely to disclose because you really don’t have that privacy of in-person therapy and you’re not really there where you can make those disclosures.”
Grosik hopes that, with school and services back in person, this can help to create a new normal for children – and more opportunities to spot the signs of abuse.
“At some point in time, kids are fully back in school, back in services, back in the therapeutic end of things – almost like a new normal," she said. "But I think we’re going to see some long-term effects of all of this.
“There’s some anxiety and just a lot of unknowns tied to this pandemic – a lot of depression, a lot of mental health concerns – for not only our teens, but our middle school kiddos, and it’s even trickling down to our elementary age. It’s scary.”