There’s a dangerous and tragic scourge lurking unseen in our communities.

No, we’re not talking about the new coronavirus. This one was around long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s quite possibly being made worse by it.

It’s child abuse.

As much as we’d all like to believe that every child is loved, every child is well cared for and every single child lives in a safe environment at home, we know that’s not the case. And the isolated conditions in which many children are living right now because of the viral outbreak are potentially making the unsafe environments even more perilous.

As Ken Little reports in today’s edition, child welfare advocates are extremely concerned. And they have reason to be. Between March 1 and April 7, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services saw a 30 percent decline statewide in referrals for suspected child abuse compared to the same period in 2019. While in normal times that would be a cause for celebration, these are not normal times. Deana Hicks, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Mosheim, told Little the decline in reports “absolutely is a concern of ours. We know kids are at home and coronavirus causes stress on a lot of people. … We know that it puts a lot of families at risk.”

That stress might be taken out on children, especially in homes where abuse is already occurring or likely. And while a battered spouse might report the crime to authorities, “kids rarely report to strangers,” Wendy Peay, executive director of the United Way of Greene County, which helps fund the Child Advocacy Center, told Little.

Teachers, Peay said, “tend to be our first line of defense, and now kids aren’t in school.” Isolated at home,

Children also are kept from being seen by school counselors and other adults who might detect and report signs of abuse.

And even when an abused child is seen, the horror at home might not be the kind that leaves suspicious, visible injuries. Hicks pointed out that about 8 in 10 referrals to the Child Advocacy Center involve allegations of sexual abuse.

Right now, child victims are stuck in houses with their abusers and, in these highly stressful times, potential abusers. Advocates such as Hicks and Peay ask anyone communicating with them through the video-chat programs that have become so popular and useful during this time of isolation to look for clues that might signal abuse.

And it’s not just the responsibility of friends and family. Tennessee law requires anyone who knows of or suspects child abuse to report it. That can be done anonymously via the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-877-237-0004 or online at https://apps.tn.gov/carat/. You can also call the local Child Advocacy Center at 423-422-4446.

Even during this time when it seems we all are at some risk, it is our collective responsibility to protect the most vulnerable. It’s on all of us. We join the child advocates and ask everyone in Greene County to be vigilant and report suspected abuse, because, as Hicks said, “Our children are literally dependent on it.”

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