National Sexual Assault Hotline sees record demand during pandemic. Many reaching out are children.

Alia E. Dastagir

USA TODAY Article 07/21/2020

Many of them call when they feel there is nowhere else to turn.

The girl whose brother was brought home by the pandemic and began to abuse her again. The victim separated from her favorite teacher after a coronavirus-related school closure. The child who called 911 in need of urgent help.

As the coronavirus pandemic has engulfed the country, more children are reaching out to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, which said this week that it’s experiencing its highest demand for services in its 26-year history. In May and June, half of visitors to RAINN’s online hotline, which sees some of the most urgent cases, were minors. 

“Their safety net collapsed during this period,” RAINN President Scott Berkowitz said. “Normally, the first people to spot signs of abuse are adults outside the immediate family: teachers and guidance counselors and the parents of friends. Once kids were cut off from that support group, we’ve seen in a lot of states that reports to child abuse authorities have declined.”

Sexual violence experts and state agency officials say they are concerned by the decline, which may be the result of teachers, who are mandated to report abuse, having less access to students. But they caution against generalizing how school closures, stay-at-home orders and pandemic-related stressors may be impacting rates of child sexual abuse.

Desks sit empty in Detroit after schools were ordered shut on March, 13, 2020.

What experts say with certainty is that the pandemic is creating additional mental health challenges for victims. Berkowitz, who said the majority of young people who reach out to RAINN are living with their abuser, often need emotional support. 

Children have been stripped of their normal routines, which are lifelines for victims of abuse. Many kids lost the reprieve of school and are now isolated from friends and other trusted adults. Those who live with their abusers may be in a state of hypervigilance, increasingly alert as the threat of abuse looms. This is on top of their COVID-19-specific stress – fear of the unknown, uncertainty about when their lives will change again.

“The stressors these children are facing will have a lifelong affect on their mental and physical health,” said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “A child’s developing brain is heavily impacted by toxic stress, and the more a child’s stress response is activated and prolonged by abuse and the conditions that surround it the more they suffer.” 

COVID-19 may put some kids at risk while offering others protection

Child sexual abuse occurs when a child is exposed to sexual acts or behavior. Boys and girls are vulnerable, though research shows girls are abused three times more often than boys.

Children are most often sexually abused by people they know and trust, and frequently by someone who lives in the home. COVID-19 has put many children in close and constant proximity to their abuser, which has many child welfare advocates worried.

But Kristen Houser, a nationally recognized expert on sexual violence and deputy secretary for Pennsylvania’s Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said there are many motivations and behaviors related to abuse, making it impossible to generalize about what may be happening during the pandemic. 

Some children may be more at risk because they’re trapped at home with their abusers or because an abusive family member, such as an older sibling, has returned to the home. But stay-at-home orders may make another child more safe, adding in the constant presence of additional family members, which can reduce opportunities for the abuser to perpetrate.

Still, there are other variables. Some perpetrators won’t be deterred by additional people in the home, and will instead see how far they can push boundaries. Larry Nassar, Houser notes, abused his victims with parents in the room.

In some homes, physical acts may become less frequent, but abusers may find other ways to cause harm.

“The sexual abuse may take the form of sexually explicit conversation … and could still feel very threatening to a child,” said Jon Rubin, deputy secretary for Pennsylvania’s Office of Children.

When the threat of abuse looms

Experts say while there is no statistical evidence of increased child sexual abuse, the threat of abuse, which for some children may now be more constant, can create added suffering. 

“Even if there’s not additional abusive acts occurring, that victim already has firsthand knowledge that it’s possible,” Houser said. “The increased hypervigilance could be really disruptive.”

Hypervigilance, the state of anticipating danger, can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, research shows. Repeated or prolonged activation of a child’s stress response can even change the functioning of the developing brain.

Houser said children are resilient, but that resiliency is often rooted in outside supports, which COVID-19 has stripped. 

“The isolation and no longer being at school, less socializing with friends, maybe not being with other positive adult role models or extended family – those things could actually exacerbate a child’s experience, even if they’re not continuously being abused,” she said.

How adults can help

Pre-COVID-19, it was already difficult to spot abuse. Houser said people who work in victims services assume the majority of child sexual abuse cases are not reported. It takes time, attention and thoughtfulness for teachers, parents and other caregivers to facilitate the type of safe communication with a young person that would encourage them to disclose.

Now, many children aren’t able to leave their abusive environments, which is often when they feel safest opening up.

Experts say caring adults, especially extended family, can spot signs of abuse by paying close attention to changes in a child’s behavior. Sleeping patterns may shift. A previously gregarious child may appear withdrawn or become more fearful or reluctant to be alone with a certain family member.

Houser says it’s important to recognize child sexual abuse involves complex dynamics. It’s a crime that makes adults feel intensely emotional and angry, but that may not be how the child feels. Because the abuse is often committed by somebody the child trusts and loves, they may hate the abuse, but not the abuser. 

Being sensitive to the child’s feelings is key to getting them the help they need.

“Part of what people who offend do is create such confusion by mixing genuine, real affection and love for the child with manipulation of how naive the child may be,” she said. “When we on the outside respond as if the person who did the abuse is monstrous, w We run the risk of actually shutting children down so that they are afraid to disclose to us or ask for our help.”

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit and receive confidential support.

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