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FairfaxOpinionLetter: Pandemic has exacerbated issues of child abuse, neglect

Letter: Pandemic has exacerbated issues of child abuse, neglect

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Editor: Lockdowns, school closures and movement restrictions have stimulated violence in families where it didn’t exist before, and worsened situations in places where mistreatment and violence had been a problem.

Too often in the pandemic, children have been stuck with their abusers, without access to the safe spaces that school and other outside activities normally offer.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, an opportunity to recognize both the dangers posed by various forms of child abuse and neglect, as well as the life-saving help that is available right here in Fairfax County.

Child abuse generally is defined as a situation in which a parent or caregiver, whether by actually inflicting harm or by failing to prevent it, causes injury, death emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. There are many forms, among them physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and emotional maltreatment.

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Nearly three million cases are reported every year in the U.S. In Fairfax County in 2019, more than 3,000 children found themselves under the supervision of Child Protective Services (CPS). That’s the equivalent of 56 school buses!

Survivors tell us that the fear associated with their abuse generated, among other feelings, a long-lasting sense of unworthiness. They speak also of the demoralization of unpredictability in their lives: Will the morning start off with my abuser being in a good mood, or will the painful cycle begin anew some contrived transgression leading to physical and emotional violence?

Such abuse and neglect typically have a debilitating impact on long-term health and well-being. We know that exposure to violence in childhood increases the risks of injury, future violence, substance abuse, sexually-transmitted infections, delayed brain development, lower educational attainment, and limited employment opportunities. But we also know that if we can get to these kids – or, more accurately, if we can get concerned family members and friends to help them obtain the services and guidance that can lead to safety and good health – we can change lives.

As a partner in Fairfax County’s overall effort to “Build Stronger Families,” SafeSpot Children’s Advocacy Center provides a suite of life-saving services organized around a crucial information-gathering tool: the “forensic interview.” This child-oriented open-ended, non-leading conversation is conducted by a trained professional when allegations of abuse are levied. It allows a child to talk about potentially traumatic events he or she may have experienced or witnessed, and to do so in a non-threatening environment.

Our goals in the interview are to assess the safety of the child’s living arrangement, address the child’s needs and offer support.

The interview often is witnessed discreetly by CPS and law enforcement officials, and ultimately can help determine whether criminal charges might be brought against someone who may have been abusive to the child.

Non-abusive parents and family members, law enforcement, CPS and trained counselors all participate in identifying the best course of action for the child in the aftermath of the interview.

When coupled with other services that offer support to the family structure and well-being and that provide therapy to address the child’s trauma, we can begin the healing process. But we and our professional colleagues and allied programs can’t even get started unless caring and concerned parents and friends … do something.

In the past year, Fairfax residents have come together as a community to cope with, manage and combat the pandemic. And while hope and healing for abused children are not to be found in a vaccine, we can save lives if together we are willing to open our eyes and increase our awareness, understanding and attentiveness to the potential for child abuse and neglect.

What better time to start than now, during National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Michelee Thames, Fairfax

Thames is executive director of SafeSpot Children’s Advocacy Center of Fairfax County.

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