Protecting children from abuse has become even more vital during the coronavirus pandemic, said an archdiocesan official.
“Home is not always the safest place for kids,” said Leslie Davila, director of the archdiocesan Office for Youth and Child Protection.
Close quarters, anxiety, job loss and financial uncertainty can all create “extra stressors that can contribute to neglect and abuse,” she said.
Davila said her team has “already seen spikes” in reports of abuse, with actual figures likely much higher, since incidents are typically underreported.
All victim service telephone numbers and email accounts are being monitored as usual, she said. Victim assistance coordinators continue to work with both survivors and providers to ensure uninterrupted access to mental health support services, utilizing telehealth where possible.
But with children staying at home, Davila noted, “there are fewer opportunities for caring adults to see and act on indicators of abuse.”
The move to online classes has also increased the risk of sexual exploitation, she said.
(Watch the Office for Child and Youth Protection’s video on Child Abuse Prevention Month 2020.)
“Predators have prime opportunity now, because most of what we’re doing right now is online,” said Davila. “They’re looking for ways to engage minors in sexually explicit conversations and in sharing videos.”
She also stressed the importance of maintaining appropriate boundaries when using online collaboration platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom.
Parents should “take a look at what’s behind them” when children are on screen, she said, since personal items and photographs can divulge information that makes kids vulnerable.
Davila recommended “creating a virtual classroom setting, with nothing personal in the screen view.”
She also advised against having children participate in online classes “while lying in bed or in their bedrooms at all.”
“Keep the online learning a formalized, supervised experience,” she said.
With stay-at-home orders continuing indefinitely, Davila and her team have redoubled their efforts to promote children’s safety, especially as the country marks National Child Abuse Prevention Month (NCAPM) in April.
“We’re usually out and about in parishes and schools programs, so we’ve had to continue our work online through emails, virtual training conferences and webinars,” Davila said.
The office’s email newsletter, which reaches some 41,000 recipients, is now being sent weekly, with each issue featuring resources – in both English and Spanish – for parents, children and mandated reporters of abuse.
Davila and her staff are encouraging faithful to wear blue on April 27 to mark NCAPM’s “Blue Monday.” Participants are being asked to post social media pictures that day using the hashtag #bluemonday.
Above all, said Davila, communities should unite even amid social distancing to protect children.
“If you see an inappropriate conversation online, if you hear something disturbing next door, if you haven’t seen a neighbor’s kids at all for a while, even in the backyard – say something,” she said.
Charitable acts can also work to reduce the risk of child abuse, she said.
“Can we help take the edge off of at-risk families by dropping off food or gift cards?” she suggested. “Or how can we find ways to support those social workers and agencies trying to help kids?”
Even “supportive words” shared among family members and neighbors can “keep us in a healthy space,” Davila said.
Asking for divine assistance is equally important, she said, noting that her office provides a number of “prayers for inner peace” intended “for those moments when it all feels overwhelming.”
Persons wishing to report an allegation of sexual abuse should contact immediately their local law enforcement agency and/or the archdiocesan Office of Investigations at 1-888-930-9010. Mandated reporters are required to call ChildLine, which is staffed by the Department of Public Welfare at 1-800-932-0313.
To report a violation of The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries, contact the archdiocesan Office of Investigations.
If you need support or assistance, victim services and referrals are available through the Victim Assistance Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at 1-888-800-8780 or www.ChildYouthProtection.org.
The Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting Service (CBAR) has been established as a result of the ongoing commitment of the Catholic bishops of the United States to carry out “Vos Estis Lux Mundi.” The hotline will accept reports of abuse by Catholic bishops or their interference in the civil or church investigations via phone or the internet to a third-party entity. Individuals may go to ReportBishopAbuse.org to file a report or call (800) 276-1562.
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