The month of April holds two important awareness topics: sexual assault and child sexual abuse prevention. In 2020, it was estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2-17 were victims of physical, sexual, or emotional violence. During the early months of the pandemic, researchers say a greater proportion of older children reported the abuse after stay-at-home orders went into effect.
Increased isolation and a widespread shutdown during COVID-19 stripped the chance of schoolteachers and healthcare providers to notice bruises on children, or increased depression where psychological or sexual abuse may have occurred.
The World Health Organization defines child maltreatment (CM) as “the abuse and neglect that occurs to children under 18 years of age.” The National Library of Medicine reported that school closures decreased the extent that children interacted with mandated reporters and other professionals trained to detect child maltreatment, meaning a correlated decrease in child maltreatment reports.
“Both sexual assault and child abuse are vastly underreported crimes for several reasons,” said Sheyla Camacho, Public Health Educator, Victim Intervention Program/Rape Crisis Center (VIP) at Parkland Health. “It is important to remember that it is never the victim’s fault.”
Current available studies cannot fully assess the lasting impacts of COVID-19 and child maltreatment. “Child abuse is an unfortunate tragedy and what is understood is that there have been well-documented cases that show increases in child maltreatment in association with increased parental stress,” said Camacho. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, parental stress increased during the pandemic because of fear of the virus, job loss, new rules and mandates, and transitions to virtual work and schooling.
Parkland’s VIP service offers help at different stages whether the victim is in the hospital where advocates are paged and offer knowledge about safety planning, rights, and local resources. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Camacho. “An advocate helps create knowledge and options for the victim and with knowledge comes power.”
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has designated April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month in recognition of the widespread prevalence of sexual assault nationwide. The theme of this year’s observance is “Building Safe Online Spaces Together.”
A Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults says compared with 2017, a similar share of Americans experienced any type of online harassment – but more severe encounters have become more common such as sexual harassment. And with more Americans at home using their online devices due to the pandemic, that creates more opportunities for predators to make a virtual connection.
The “Building Safe Online Spaces Together” campaign promotes the notion of practicing digital consent, intervening when we see harmful content and behaviors, and encouraging online communities that value respect, inclusion, and safety.
Camacho says that because sexual harassment, assault, and abuse can happen anywhere, including online, it is important to know that Parkland has resources for survivors regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. “Being able to bring these tough conversations to the surface will hopefully bring more empowerment to the community to speak up and speak out about abuse. The truly incredible part of the VIP Clinic is that advocacy, counseling, and education and outreach services are completely free for Dallas County residents over the age of 4.”
At Parkland, every person seeking care is screened for abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional. Parkland’s VIP/Rape Crisis Center offers a 24-hour response for victims seen in Parkland facilities and provides information about emergency shelters, legal assistance and other services. Spanish-speaking staff is available and services in other languages are offered through medical interpreters.
Over the last 24 years, Parkland’s VIP/Rape Crisis Center has assisted thousands of survivors of sexual assault. In 2021, the Center served 3,090 clients with a total of 3,586 counseling hours provided. In comparison, the Center served 2,683 victims of sexual assault, family violence, or assault in 2018. “In Texas, two in five women and one in five men have been sexually assaulted,” Camacho stated.
Parkland’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program provides specialized care to victims of sexual assault who come to the Parkland Emergency Department. SANEs are registered nurses who have completed education and clinical preparation in the medical forensic care of patients who have experienced sexual assault or abuse.
Camacho says everyone can play a role in preventing abuse by spreading awareness in their community about child abuse/neglect and sexual assault. She suggests supporting survivors by spending quality time with them by doing things that make them feel strong and healthy. In cases involving sexual assault and/or child abuse, over 80% of the time the victim knows the perpetrator. She recommends validating instead of victim-blaming. Create an open line of communication with loved ones because, she says, when we talk about trauma, victims will respond differently with a fight, flight, freeze or appease reaction.
To act, she recommends people attend a presentation or a class regarding these topics to further educate themselves, volunteer at a shelter, or donate to organizations that support survivors.
If an abusive situation arises personally or an individual knows of someone experiencing traumatic experiences and needs immediate assistance, call the Parkland Rape Crisis Center hotline at 214-590-0430. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has a central place to report abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a minor by calling 800-252-5400. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 by phone at 800-656-HOPE.
To make an appointment with a counselor or find out more information about Parkland’s services, please call the VIP/Rape Crisis Center at 214-590-2926. For more information about Parkland services, visit www.parklandhealth.org/vip.