NEW PHILADELPHIA — When the state's schools closed in mid-March of 2020 due to the pandemic, children were sent home for the end of the academic year. An increase in child abuse followed, including an increase in sex offenses, according to local experts who oversee investigations and help for the victims.
The number of cases of all forms of child abuse reported to Tuscarawas County Job and Family Services spiked in 2020, and continues to be elevated this year, according to Heather Morris, intake supervisor for Children Services. "Drugs is the main reason for it," she said. "We have a lot of meth in the area. There's domestic violence, sexual abuse. Those are always our three top types of cases. "A lot of times with that domestic violence, or the drug use, are mental health concerns with the caregivers. A lot of times there are multiple factors in each case," Morris said.
In 2020, Children Services opened 345 abuse cases, nearly 20 percent more than the 288 in 2019. For the first half of 2021, there were 241, a number approaching the 288 total for all of 2019. Noah's Hope Child Advocacy Center also saw more children who had been abused, sexually and otherwise, according to Mandy Prosser, executive director of the nonprofit that connects children and families to resources designed to help overcome their physical and emotional trauma.
The child advocacy center provides space and recording facilities where children may be interviewed about their experiences, so they do not need to repeat their stories unnecessarily for the police, prosecutor, doctor and Job and Family Services. In 2020, Noah's Hope helped 119 children who had been abused, a 52% increase over the 78 aided in 2019. In the first half of this year, Noah's Hope served 85 abused children, more than in all of 2019.
Of last year's total, 95 children had been sexually abused, a nearly 40% increase over the 68 aided by Noah's Hope in 2019. Prosser said abuse continued to be reported in 2020, even as school closures due to COVID-19 kept children away from teachers and other school staffers who are mandated to report suspected child abuse.
But parents were more likely to be the abusers in 2020 than in 2019, according to Prosser. They accounted for 20% of the abusers in 2020, compared to 1% in 2019. Parents have accounted for 16% of all child abusers so far this year. The significant other of a victim's parent accounted for 27% of all abusers in 2020 cases seen by Noah's Hope. The rest of the abusers were step-parents, other relatives, or other persons known to the child. None were strangers.
"Every single child has known their perpetrator in some way," Prosser said. "It's not anybody they just met once. It's usually somebody that this family knows and trusts." Such persons outside the family but known to the child were 39 percent of abusers in cases handled by Noah's Hope in 2020, down from 60 percent in 2019. Among the cases of child sex abuse indicted this year are those of a preacher and a student teacher. Former First Lutheran Church of Strasburg pastor Steven P. Woyen has pleaded guilty to three charges of sexual battery against a victim who was between the ages of 15 and 18.
Justin D. McCauley, of Bolivar, who formerly was a student teacher in the Tuscarawas Valley Local Schools, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of gross sexual imposition with a victim under 13, a girl he had been babysitting.
Although cases of child sexual abuse by strangers are rare, they have occurred in Tuscarawas County. A boy known publicly as the Mineral City Warrior was violently attacked in that village in 2016. A 70-year-old man, Dean A. Eick, who formerly lived in Dover, had pleaded not guilty after being charged in June with gross sexual imposition, after allegedly groping a child younger than 13 in a restaurant.
Research shows that 26 percent of all girls have been sexually abused by the age of 18, along with 5 percent of boys, according to Prosser. About a third of child sexual abuse incidents are identified, and even fewer are reported, according to online information from Darkness to Light, a non-profit that aims to help adults prevent child sexual abuse
Female victims outnumber males among those served by Noah's Hope by roughly three-to-one. Statewide, girls accounted for 6,228 of the 9,045 victims served by child advocacy centers throughout Ohio in 2019, and 5,948 of the 8,673 served in 2020. "The numbers went down during the pandemic, whereas Tuscarawas County's shot up," Prosser said.
Child Abuse Prevention
Parents and other adults can protect children from sexual and other forms of abuse, especially when they know or suspect certain individuals — perhaps in their own families — have committed those crimes in the past, perhaps against the parents themselves.
"Trust your gut," Prosser said. "You know your children or ... the young people in your life. That's your job to protect them. You're the only person they have. Especially if you know that something happened to you, and maybe they didn't disclose for whatever reason, or maybe they did disclose but it didn't go anywhere for whatever reason. You still know what happened to you. You need to protect your child.
"From an early age, talk to them about what is natural and healthy-type sexual relationships," Prosser said. "Make sure that they know their body parts, what's safe for a person to touch. It is it OK for somebody to give you a hug? Is it OK for somebody to touch you underneath your bathing suit, for smaller kids.
"People use the terms like 'birds and the bees' or 'the talk.' You should be having these talks with them throughout life, gradually. It should just come up to make sure they know body safety, they know who they can go to," she said. Prosser recalled the recent interviews of two teen girls who were sexually abused for a number of years, beginning around ages 4 and 6. "They never even understood that it was wrong because it was something that has happened to them for so long," Prosser said.
School-based sexual education caused them to understand that what they were subjected to was improper. One disclosed the acts to another person, and was told that was not appropriate behavior for family members. Prosser advised parents to monitor children's activity on the internet and in real life. "We have seen an increase in very young children who are looking up pornography ... We're talking like 8-year-old children," Prosser said. "Know where your kids are," she said. "Know who they're with. Know who's supervising them."