April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. During the coronavirus pandemic, more than ever before, it is critical to be aware of the potential for child abuse.

“During this crisis, we believe that there will be a spike in child abuse as parents struggle to cope with frustrations, financial stress and anxiety,” said Krystle Hilliard, director for Canopy Children’s Solutions’ (Canopy) South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center. “Teachers are the number one reporters of child abuse.  While children are out of school, the signs of abuse are going unnoticed. It’s very troubling to think of the children who have lost their ‘safe place’ and their voice and what they are having to endure.”

Hilliard points to a similar time after Hurricane Katrina when Mississippi saw a huge spike in child abuse cases when tensions were running high and many children were also out of school.

“During times of excessive trauma and high-stress, child abuse cases are primarily reported from hospitals and by law enforcement. But there are so many more cases where the child isn’t getting medical help, where law enforcement hasn’t been called, and we have no way of helping without those reports from individuals being made,” said Hilliard. “We always see a consistent trend where reporting is down during the summer months and around holidays when kids are out of school. However, we also see huge spikes as soon as schools reconvene. It isn’t because the abuse wasn’t happening; there was no one there to speak up for those children.”

Some individuals close to abuse cases have said they didn’t report because they were afraid of being wrong and getting family, friends or neighbors in trouble unnecessarily. Hilliard says individuals who think abuse could be occurring should change their perspective to, “what if I could have done something and didn’t,” rather than, “what if I’m wrong.” Filing a report with the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Service (MDCPS) will initiate an investigation; however, it does not automatically mean that a child will be removed from their home. There are family preservation services, including Canopy’s in-CIRCLE program, to which MDCPS makes referrals to help families address crisis situations, that works to keep the children safe and families together.

 What is Child Abuse?

Under Mississippi Code Section 43-21-105, child abuse is defined as a child whose parent, guardian, custodian, or any person responsible for his or her care or support, whether or not legally obligated to do so, has caused or allowed to be caused upon the child non-accidental physical injury or other maltreatment. Child abuse is more broadly characterized by six major categories by the Children’s Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, abandonment, and substance abuse.

“Understanding what constitutes abuse is an important step in being able to identify and help protect those who are most vulnerable,” says Hilliard. “Abuse is any type of maltreatment—physical, sexual or emotional harm, neglect, or withholding food, clothing or shelter—anything that causes intentional harm.”

What Can I Do?

Even more than identifying child abuse, Hilliard hopes we can all prevent child abuse.

“Even as we are social distancing, we can continue to watch for signs to help families and protect children,” says Hilliard. “Check in with your friends and neighbors, stay connected with what is happening in their lives. If you notice changes such as extreme irritability, excessive drinking or smoking, a verbal cry for help, loss of employment or just noticing he or she is overwhelmed and on edge, ask how you can help.”

Many times when abuse occurs, particularly emotional or physical, it is not the result of a parent who doesn’t love their child, but rather a highly-stressed parent who isn’t equipped to positively cope with their situation. Offering to help watch children play outside while a parent works, delivering a cooked meal, helping a child with schoolwork or providing a sympathetic ear is often enough support to help overwhelmed parents cope in a difficult time. It’s normal to feel frustrated, anxious and overwhelmed but parents should remain mindful not to take that stress out on their children. It takes a village to raise a child, and that village of support is more important today than ever before.

If you suspect child abuse is occurring, please call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-222-8000 or file a report online at https://reportabuse.mdcps.ms.gov. If you believe a child may be in imminent danger, call 911 immediately. Together, we can be ONE LOUD VOICE for children.

ABOUT SOUTH MISSISSIPPI CHILD ADVOCACY CENTER: SMCAC became part of Canopy Children’s Solutions in 2015. The center provides forensic interviews and healing services for children involved in allegations of physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or who may have witnessed a violent crime. Staff works closely with a multidisciplinary team including law enforcement and local prosecutors to help bring families justice and closure.

CANOPY CHILDREN’S SOLUTIONS (Canopy) offers an array of behavioral health, educational and social service solutions to children and families throughout Mississippi. For more information about solutions offered through Canopy, please visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.