Child Abuse Cases Increase During Pandemic

Child Abuse Cases Increase During Pandemic

Jenny is a wisp of a girl, at 6 weighing little more than 35 pounds and not 4 feet tall. She has few toys. She wears tattered pink jeans. She has sad eyes, and almost no happy memories.

Unable to attend school because of pandemic closings, she spent most of her time last year inside her mother's shabbily furnished apartment at the rear of a dilapidated house in a poor neighborhood.

Her mother seemed to sleep a lot. She had lost her job because of the pandemic and her reliance on methamphetamine seemed to be growing. Also, her mother's latest boyfriend was becoming more abusive. A course, wiry man who always seemed angry, he would drink too much and smoke meth and swear and shout.

One day last winter he dragged the frightened little girl out of the house, bruising her arm, and refused to let her back in. It was December, it was cold, and Jenny wore only a frayed hoody. She spent frigid hours that day waiting for her mother to let her back in. Jenny had no Christmas.

The Facts Could Be Real

Jenny is not a real girl, but she could be. The situations in this fictional account are typical of the cases social service workers encounter all the time. Last year cases escalated alarmingly because of the pandemic.

"We've been really really busy... this has been the busiest year in my time here," said Kathie Williams, for 27 years the executive director of the Children's Center of Transylvania County.

That's why April's Child Abuse Prevention Month is more important than ever, she said. She and others concerned with the maltreatment of children are hoping it will raise awareness to new heights, to at least bring the numbers back down to pre-pandemic levels. More public awareness leads to more prevention, they say.

The non-profit center was founded in 1990, dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect. It managed to stay open throughout 2020 despite pandemic restrictions, unlike most such agencies in the area, and saw its emergency assistance incidents increase from 971 in 2019 to 1,211. Pressure on many of the center's specific services and programs rose similarly.

"We deal with anything you can think of," said Williams, from delivering food to needy families to parental counseling and therapy to dental braces for 9-year-olds.

During April the center hopes to raise awareness in the public by passing out blue ribbons and stickers to wear and placing symbolic "Pinwheels for Prevention" on lawns throughout the county. It's part of a national campaign.

Transylvania County

Transylvania, with a child population of some 6,000 – 29 percent under age 6 – has its share of abused and neglected children. Center officials recall one woman who lost all nine of her children to foster care because of maltreatment.

They've seen sex trafficking of small children, homes where there were six children with five indifferent missing fathers, where battered kids had little but cold cereal for dinner. And all that is aggravated by the pandemic.

"There's a lot of stress," said the center's other full-time staffer, Jody McNiel, its program director and volunteer coordinator. "Parents are out of work, they're at home, tensions are high. And that can result in bad things happening to good kids."

On top of that, with children at home instead of in school, signs of abuse and neglect last year weren't being caught by teachers and other outsiders, said McNiel. "There is a lot going on in this county," said Marilyn Self, a long-time center volunteer and member of its Board of Directors.

"And during the pandemic we had fewer people noticing things."

Williams and McNiel say often abused beget abused, that a cycle of abuse is established when mistreated children grow up to do the same things to their children. They say a typical child is put in foster care, ages out of that system and begins to have children of their own, often with multiple partners.

There is little or no family support in most such cases, fathers are often missing and a new cycle of abuse begins, they say. "We work with at-risk parents one-on-one," said Williams, "to teach parenting skills in order to break that cycle."

The center often will help such parents find decent housing, provide food and clothing for their children, and even help them get and maintain transportation. When they are separated from their children by authorities, the center provides a place for supervised visitations.

Troubling Figures

Statistics are generally late catching up to current times, but they continue to be troubling throughout the years. For instance, in North Carolina from July 2018 to June 2019 there were nearly 103,000 reports of possible maltreatment of children. Nationally, that number approached 4 million. In addition to the emotional tragedy, experts estimate that volume cost the nation more than $100 billion.

Locally, the center, in a converted house at 95 S. Johnson St. in downtown Brevard, offers a wide range of active and preventive programs focusing on mistreated children and families at risk. In addition to full-timers Williams and McNiel, some 40 volunteers operate its services. The center's annual budget is $170,000. It gets no government appropriations, but it receives grants from the Governor's Crime Commission and others. Local churches and organizations also support it with donations.

And a good part of its revenue comes from its unique retail shop on South Broad Street in Brevard, the Children's Center Emporium. It carries new but bargain-priced children's clothing and toys and is staffed by volunteers.

Unfortunately, the Emporium has suffered the same decline in sales that other retail shops experience because of the growth in on-line competition, aggravated by the pandemic. "Revenue is down and that hurts us," says Williams. "We're hoping shoppers will be back in greater numbers as the pandemic eases. We depend on our community folks to keep the doors open."

So, the center needs individuals' donations. Once a year, in December, it conducts an annual fund drive. This year it hopes to raise $20,000 to $30,000. Donations are welcomed anytime, however, and may be mailed to the center at 95 South Johnson St., Brevard, 28712, or dropped off there in person.

Persons wishing to volunteer may call 885 7286. McNiel says responsibility to look out for our county's children rests on all our shoulders, not just the Center and agencies like it. "As adults, we are responsible for ensuring all children have the safe, stable, nurturing and healthy environments they need to thrive," she said.

Ray Tuers