For several years, rates of child abuse and child maltreatment had been either slowly declining or remaining stagnant. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, those rates began to rise.
According to Amy Russell, executive director for the Arthur D. Curtis Children’s Justice Center, reports of abuse have risen nationwide about 40 percent since March 2020 when compared with pre-pandemic rates. Russell has a master’s degree in counseling and has been providing support to children and families for nearly two decades.
In recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, Russell spoke recently with The Columbian about the issues of child abuse and child maltreatment.
What is the Children’s Justice Center, and what does it do?
At CJC, we do all child sexual abuse cases that come through the county. We handle serious physical abuse cases where there’s felony injury-level types of cases and serious neglect types of cases. CJC is a little bit different from many other children’s advocacy centers. We are what’s known nationally as a children’s advocacy center, and we work primarily felony-level cases.
When you see the term “child abuse,” most people think of either physical or sexual abuse. What is child abuse or child maltreatment?
There are four different forms of child maltreatment. There’s sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and psychological maltreatment. In the state of Washington, we don’t have a child abuse or child maltreatment definition, or an investigation (process) … for psychological maltreatment. However, psychological maltreatment typically co-occurs with about 92 percent of all other forms of maltreatment and is generally considered the most frequent type of abuse and the most damaging form.
How prevalent is child abuse in Clark County?
National statistics show at least one in seven children has experienced child abuse and neglect in the past year. I can’t tell you specifically what Clark County looks like, but when we’re able to gather that type of data, it usually points in that direction for most places. It’s also very well recognized as being wildly underestimated. There’s likely more maltreatment going on than what is coming to the attention of the authorities or from disclosures from adults who were abused as kids. What we saw in 2021 were 2,056 cases that came to CJC. We didn’t investigate that many because we only investigate the felony-level cases. The other cases will go to the city attorneys and patrol officers, and they’ll do their investigations and prosecutions.
Prior to the pandemic, rates of child abuse were slowly declining. How did the pandemic affect reports locally?
Nationally, again, the numbers were slowly declining. It was thought we were doing better with prevention programs, with outreach to parents, to decrease stress in families because that is a big risk factor for child maltreatment. It wasn’t a huge, steep decline, but there was this slow, progressive decline that researchers were seeing.
In the few months following the initial pandemic outbreak and shutdowns, reports dropped by about 50 percent — in Clark County, in Washington state and nationally. There was a slow rebound of reports from the middle of 2020 through the end of the year.
We ended 2020 with significantly fewer allegations, but about the same number of cases that were screened-in at CJC as possible felony-level cases — indicating that the referrals we received were more serious than years past (with 21 percent of reports investigated as felony child abuse in 2019 versus 26 percent of cases in 2020). In 2021, we still had a couple hundred fewer cases referred, but we were at 40 percent higher for screened-in cases as possible felony child abuse.
In terms of cases that screened-in at CJC, we saw 477 children in 2019, 426 children in 2020 and 650 children in 2021. In the first two months of 2022, we have screened-in 39 percent of cases referred to CJC, indicating that the trend of more serious reports continues.
What should you do if you suspect a child is being abused?
We really encourage folks to report suspected maltreatment. There’s no requirement that you have evidence; that’s not part of the statute. If a caretaker is reporting suspected abuse, they can contact the Department of Children, Youth and Families. If it’s not a caretaker, they can contact law enforcement.
Also, just reach out to friends and family members and acknowledge this has been a really challenging time and ask how you can support and help them.