Sept. 8, 2020 is the first day of school in Camden County, but many classrooms remain empty as virtual learning continues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. During a virtual or hybrid model, Multi-Disciplinary Team Coordinator and victim advocate, Megan Price, said it could be a challenge to monitor a child’s well-being.
“There are concerns that child abuse could go unreported or unnoticed if it’s a family member or household member that is committing the abuse,” said Price. “A lot of times we receive reports of physical abuse or allegations sexual abuse from teachers in schools or a school counselor.”
If a child isn’t receiving in-person instruction, Special Victims Unit Section Chief, Kelly Testa, said there are ways for teachers to check in on their students, like scheduling one-on-one video chats. There, teachers can ask questions and look for signs that a child is struggling.
“One obvious one would be a child who’s normally outgoing and active in the classroom, involved answering questions,” said Testa. “If that child suddenly becomes withdrawn and suddenly doesn’t participate, that could be a sign that there’s something going on with the child. It could be a sign of anxiety, but it could be a sign of something more.”
As a mandatory reporting state, anyone who suspects instances of child abuse in New Jersey is required to report it to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency Hotline. It’s important to remember that reporters can remain anonymous, they’re often just asked their name or number for potential follow-up questions. That information will not be documented in the report.
If the situation indicates the child is being abused or has been in the past, DCP&P brings the victim to the Child Advocacy Center or CAC for a forensic interview.
“We have special interview rooms, we have detectives who are all forensically trained in conducting interviews,” said Testa. “It is a special skill to talk to kids and to get kids to tell you horrific things that have happened to them. It really does take a special training.”
The center was opened in Camden in 2018 and features waiting rooms for younger children and teenagers to encourage a feeling of safety and comfort. During the first weeks of COVID-19, Price said reports of abuse to the hotline were down. Since then, there has been an increase in reporting as families have quarantined at home.
“It’s important to remember that abuse isn’t just bruises, that it’s all sorts of things,” said Price. “Kids absorb the world around them and internalize it. They sometimes blame themselves for something that they had nothing to do with.”
Domestic violence, violent outbursts that lead to holes in walls and consistent shouting can all be categorized as emotional abuse. If a parent feels they’re unable to find healthy outlets for the additional stress during the pandemic, Testa said the CAC isn’t just there to investigate and charge people, but can match families with resources.
“I get it, it’s extremely stressful. The family dynamic is so different right now and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Testa. “We’re here and we can assist you and your families in getting you the help that you need to make things easier on your children.”
If you suspect a child is being abused, the number to call is 1-877-NJ-Abuse or 1-877-652-2873.