For the third year in a row, Kentucky ranks first in the nation the for the rate of child abuse, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "Child Maltreatment 2019" report released this year.
Based on 2019 numbers, the most recent year for which data is available, Kentucky had more than 20,000 abuse and neglect cases, more than double the national average.
Poverty, the state’s drug epidemic, and the high number of children in foster care are believed to be some of the most important contributing factors. But experts are worried the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a spike in child abuse numbers for 2020. Chrisie Sherrard, assistant director of the Barren River Area Child Advocacy Center (BRACAC) in Bowling Green, said the full effect of the pandemic may not be seen for a while.
"We know for a fact during the pandemic, a lot of children were at home with their abusers.
Their safe places, schools, churches where they would normally reach out to report and get help, that wasn’t available to them. I think we’ve not even seen the full effect of what that’s going to look like," Sherrard said in an interview with WKU Public Radio.
Unemployment, remote work, lack of childcare, and school disruptions have all been stressors created by the pandemic. While the BRACAC primarily works with sexual abuse victims, the non-profit has seen an increase in more severe physical abuse since. Now that most schools are back in session on a traditional schedule or nearly full-time, the agency has begun seeing more referrals because, for some children, school is their safe place. Those referrals have led to a major increase in forensic interviews conducted by the BRACAC.
"It’s basically that first initial chance for a child to tell their story and for their voice to be heard. We saw a 92 percent increase in the pandemic in kids that needed to tell their story," Sherrard said. "What that means is that even though reporting was down in the state of Kentucky, we actually saw an increase."
The Barren River Area Child Advocacy Center serves ten counties in south-central Kentucky. Warren and Barren counties typically make up a majority of cases due to their larger size, but the agency also handles referrals from Logan, Simpson, Hart, Butler, Monroe, Allen, Edmonson, and Metcalfe counties.
"What was surprising to me was that in calendar year 2019, we did 421. This year, 2020, even being the pandemic, even being we were closed for a time period, and even being kids were not in school, we only did two less interviews," explained Sherrard. "We really expected when the pandemic first hit and everything shut down, we expected our numbers to drop a lot, and that was not the case." According to Kentucky law, all citizens are required to report suspected child abuse.
"I always say if you see something, say something," commented Sherrard. "If you believe something is happening, you can’t be held responsible if it’s not. There’s a difference in false reporting versus making a report in good faith.”