Ruthanne Mefford, the Chief Executive Office of Child Advocates of Fort Bend, said the organization may experience a spike in the number of victims of child abuse it serves once stay-at-home orders are lifted and children return to school.
“With children and family members and caregivers in close physical contact for extended periods of time and with the stresses that these families are under, tempers may flare and children are oftentimes times the victims of that,” Mefford said.
While Mefford said the organization has yet to document a huge increase in the number of cases, the added stress caused by the coronavirus and the fact that children may not have a trusted adult to turn to may lead to more abusive situations.
“With schools closed and families under stress, it's kind of like the perfect conditions—though that's not exactly the terminology I'd like to use—but it's particularly challenging, because these children are isolated and they likely have no one to tell if they're being sexually abused,” Mefford said.
Mefford said that because teachers—the No. 1 reporters of child abuse—are no longer seeing children daily the actual number of reports of abuse may go down during this time even as more incidents of abuse occur. She said CAFB saw a similar pattern during Hurricane Harvey.
“We took a look at what happened to us during Hurricane Harvey to get sort of a template,” Mefford said. “We found that our numbers had actually dipped during Hurricane Harvey, but then once we recovered, they spiked afterwards because the children were then going back to school and someone was seeing them,” Mefford said.
During the coronavirus outbreak, Child Advocates of Fort Bend is continuing to service victims of abuse. Mefford said while most CAFB staff are working remotely, they are continuing to conduct forensic interviews, staff abuse cases and reaching out to children digitally.
Additionally, Mefford said CAFB is better equipped now to handle a spike in cases than they were after Harvey. In early March, CAFB had a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an $8 million remodeling and expansion project—which added nearly 10,000 square feet—to its Rosenberg location. Mefford said the expansion, along with the addition of new staff, greatly improves the organization's capacity to serve children.
“We did that because our numbers have been increasing every single year,” Mefford said. “And, we anticipate those trend lines to continue. We had a waitlist for kids before and we just don't want to ever have that.”
Mefford said now more than ever it is important now more than ever that neighbors look out for children in their communities. She encourages people to make a report on the hotline to CPS if they have any suspicion that something might be wrong.
“As the community comes together under social distancing and staying at home and everything, we want to raise awareness that neighbors need to look out for each other,” Mefford said. “And that includes looking out for children.”