Approximately 25 percent of children in Arkansas are suffering, at this moment, from abuse. In a classroom of 20 students, it's likely that five of them are being physically or sexually abused or neglected.
That's an unfortunate and sobering fact at any time.
Then, one year ago, the pandemic hit. Many students were isolated in their homes, not allowed to go to school in person, and only able to participate in remote learning. For children being abused, it meant they were trapped in their homes with their abusers. They suffered in silence and in secrecy because signs of abuse go undetected when children are not seen regularly by others outside the home.
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. It is a time to emphasize and highlight abuse against Arkansas children that often goes unseen or without intervention.
The Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas are here to help victims of child abuse on the path to justice. Our 17 centers and 10 satellites across Arkansas serve children in all 75 counties. In the troubling year of 2020, our centers helped more than 10,000 children, which is more than double the number helped five years ago. Our mission became even more important in this time of crisis for children.
Throughout the pandemic, Children's Advocacy Centers continued serving children across Arkansas. Our staff was available at all times to provide necessary resources to victims and their non-offending family members. Those free services include advocacy, mental health therapy, medical exams and forensic interviews.
The magnitude of the child abuse problem in the United States cannot be overstated. Since covid-19, there has been a rise in the number of reported physical abuse and neglect cases. That rise stands to reason as those two forms of abuse are most affected by socioeconomic status, which was widely impacted by the pandemic as families lost employment. By contrast, sexual abuse occurs equally across all levels of society.
School teachers, nurses and counselors are trained to recognize the signs of abuse. They are also mandatory reporters of abuse under Arkansas state law. Without regular exposure to children in the past year, the mandatory reporters have not been able to notice or report many cases when children need help. We need more people to be on the lookout.
It is extremely rare for a child to lie about sexual abuse, but many children believe that abuse is a shameful secret they must keep to themselves. More outside eyes are needed to identify abuse and report it.
Here are some red flags indicating possible abuse: changes in behavior such as aggression and anger; anxiety or depression; frequent absences from school; reluctance to leave school or church activities representing a fear of going home; rebellious or defiant behavior; or physical symptoms such as bruises in uncommon places on the body.
Specific symptoms may vary but are consistent in both boys and girls.
While it is true that in some cases, child abuse victims do repeat the cycle of abuse with their own children or become addicted to drugs and alcohol, their stories don't have to turn out that way. There are many more instances where victims have successfully broken that cycle of abuse through effective intervention and therapy.
That road to recovery begins with each of us. Our society needs adults with courage to do something. The first logical and easy step is to call the statewide Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline at 1.844.SAVE.A.CHILD (1-844-728-3224). That hotline is operated by trained professionals at Arkansas State Police.
Together, as a society, we can shine a light on this issue and help those most vulnerable in our state find hope and healing.
Elizabeth Pulley is executive director of Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas.