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Reports of child abuse are down. Why that's concerning Bloomington-Normal advocates.

Pantagraph - 11/29/2020

Nov. 29--BLOOMINGTON -- Like other groups that help child sexual abuse victims, the Children's Advocacy Center in Bloomington has been handling fewer referrals this year.

Typically, that would be encouraging news. But as COVID has raged across the country, shuttering businesses, schools and churches to slow the spread, there is concern the decline in case numbers suggests another trend: The abuse is still happening, but the kids just aren't interacting with anyone outside the home to report it.

"We anticipate a surge at some point because we know that a lot of our reports come from mandated reporters -- so teachers, daycare providers, that type of thing," said Director Molly Evans. "When kids aren't able to see them, obviously reports are not going to be made. So we have seen the effects. We know that child abuse has not stopped as a result of this pandemic."

Evans and others, including the county's prosecutor in charge of child abuse cases, are worried that the stay-at-home order, remote learning and other COVID restrictions have taken children away from those who could notify authorities of abuse and mistreatment. The result is they may now be in confined space with the very predator who caused them harm, all amid unprecedented challenges related to job losses or economic hardship.

It is still too early to fully gauge the impact, but those who work in the field say they are closely monitoring for signs of distress.

"We know that in the community homes are seeing more violence in terms of domestic violence situations where partners are involved, and that the incidents are becoming more severe," said Michelle Rothwell, a social worker at Bloomington Junior High School. "We know that the stress in the home is higher and victims of abuse, sexual and physical, tend to be children, and children don't have that freedom or that voice to be able to go to the emergency room and get help."



Through a combination of factors, children in low-income or single-parent homes can be at a higher risk, Rothwell said.

"If you're at home more and there's a sexual offender who's in the house, and then you add the fact that they're not going to school where they feel safe to disclose that, then it also can happen for a longer period of time," she said.

Denise McCaffrey, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, a statewide child abuse prevention advocacy organization, said the increased levels of stress families are dealing with is, unfortunately, likely to lead to increased incidences of child abuse and neglect.

"Families are under so much stress right now," she said. "We all are. We're all feeling the stress of everything surrounding COVID and everything else going on in our country."

About 34% of sexual abuse cases involve family members, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Kim Mangiaracino, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Centers of Illinois, said teachers are now being asked to survey kids using different questions to make sure they're safe.

"What we know is about 95% of children who are sexually abused are sexually abused by someone they know," Mangiaracino said. "It is not the person off the street as we sometimes see on movies or TV. It would be family members, friends of family, people that are known and trusted by families and the kids that are in that family."

Also troubling is the possibility of children being exposed to predators online, now the primary source of both schooling and socializing.

Victor Vieth, director of education and research with the Zero Abuse Project, a national nonprofit that advances policies aimed at preventing and responding to child sexual abuse, said there's a general consensus among people who work in the field that child maltreatment has increased during the pandemic. Cyber crimes against children are a particular concern, he said, pointing to an uptick in cyber tipline reports in recent months.

"If you look at it from the standpoint of the sex offender, the conditions are ideal for the offender. You've got kids that are under quarantine, kids that are isolated, kids that are in stressful situations with their parents and are at high risk to run away ... And so all of those factors coming together would suggest that there's a rise in child maltreatment during the pandemic."

But echoing others, Vieth said it may be some time until hard evidence is available to back up what advocates suspect is happening. That won't be available until "after we come out on the other side of the pandemic ... but most folks in my field say they're confident that there is an increase," he said.

248 registered sex offenders in McLean County

Exactly what that data will reveal is unclear. Law enforcement in Bloomington-Normal said they do not have evidence of an increase in sexual abuse cases.

Police are often on the frontlines of cases because of the state's registered sex offender requirement. The database is the product of the 1986 Habitual Child Sex Offender Registration Act, which mandates registration for second or subsequent sex offense (including attempts) with victims under 18. The database is available to the public online.

A review of state data shows McLean County has 248 offenders on the list.

Scott Sikora, a patrol officer for the Bloomington Police Department who manages the sex offender program, said registry violations are typically discovered by officers making routine checks.

"Most of what we find is, when we go to do address verification, someone's taken off without telling us or they've moved or they're just trying to hide from us," he said.

Other times, residents show concern about new neighbors and question the police about why they weren't contacted before a sex offender moved in nearby, Sikora said.

Sikora said he believes most offenders on the registry try to follow the rules and not get into more trouble, especially since any violation is an additional felony. Since working with a local organization that seeks to reintegrate sex offenders and parolees back into society, the department has adjusted checks so as to avoid "vilifying them more and making life harder for them," Sikora said.

"We can't tell someone that they can't live somewhere without a good reason," he said. "My opinion and my sergeant and my lieutenant, all the way up to the chief's office, is our job isn't to put up roadblocks for people."

Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said the records staff manages registration and they try to be accommodating "because that way violators don't have to go to a state site in order to do it."

Investigators make checks on a monthly basis and respond to complaints that come in from time to time, he said.

Bleichner said the registry is useful for his investigators to make follow-ups with offenders but it's legislators job not his to determine if the registry is an effective means of public safety.

"We're in the business of following the statute and the legislators have set that statute and that's what we're doing at this point," he said. "I could certainly see both sides, but if you're a victim of one of those crimes, I would certainly err on the side of the victim's rights. And I think that's what the legislature has done."

But Assistant State's Attorney Erika Reynolds said the rules don't go far enough. Pandemic or not, she said sex offender registry "absolutely" makes a difference when it comes to protecting victims and potential victims, especially children.

"I think it's another layer of protection; sometimes I think it should be stricter, to be honest," she said.

Said Reynolds: "Society can be very forgiving at times, and in my experience this is not an appropriate place for forgiveness."

Reynolds said that while prosecuting cases against defendants accused of sex crimes against other adults can be difficult, especially when the defense's key argument is the question of consent, in cases of crimes against children, evidence and witness cooperation are among the biggest challenges.

"I don't have that problem, obviously with child sex offenses because with those a child can't consent so they don't get to claim that. But the problem that I do have is it is rare -- extremely rare -- for a child to make an immediate disclosure," she said. "Usually everything is a delayed disclosure, so I tend to not have physical evidence."

'They're not getting out'

That issue of timing is one of the many concerns about the drop in case numbers, officials say.

When Bloomington-Normal school districts returned to in-person learning in October, the Children's Advocacy Center team prepared for a surge then, but it didn't come as expected, said Evans.

"Though kids were also only in school for about three weeks, a month. So I think it's still to come and we're ready to respond when that happens."

School personnel make up about 50% of mandated reporters and in the last year reports have dropped by about 50%, said Mangiaracino, the Children's Advocacy Centers of Illinois official.

They are often among the first lines of defense against child abuse, especially since teachers who see their students every day are able to build relationships and become a trusted adult in children's lives, the advocates said.

"I'm supportive and understand the stay-at-home rule, but it really emphasizes the importance of diligence on the adult's part to make sure that kids have access to outside people in their lives," Mangiaracino said.

Rothwell said maintaining those relationships while students learn from home has been difficult.

"Having that three-dimensional person there as opposed to seeing them on the screen is so different," she said. "For a lot of our children, teachers are family to them. ... The relationships that are formed throughout those years, those adults are people who are important to the students and vice versa."

But it is a rough path full of uncertainty.

Evans said they are working with the children and families to offer them as much support and additional resources as they can, including temporary housing, food, transportation, hygiene or other living supplies and funding through the federal Victims of Crime Act.

"It really starts from day one and we really just try to wrap ourselves as much as we can around these kids and the families through the life of the case," she said. "Sometimes that's two weeks, if a case doesn't get charged and sometimes that's three years and after that even."

Anyone who uses the center has access to free trauma-informed mental health counseling, including the victims and their families.

"Over these years, Children's Advocacy Centers have evolved into a more holistic approach for children who have been exposed to violence and been victims of abuse," Mangiaracino said. Counseling has become an important aspect of the centers' services in recent years "to get them the assistance they need to start to heal and be better."

The CAC also offers medical treatment, but Mangiaracino said when it comes to the psychological wounds are and can be much greater and long lasting."

McCaffrey, the Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, said the concern remains about what comes next.

"I think families are a lot more isolated than they were before," he said. "They're not getting out and children are often isolated in the homes with their abusers."

Said Rothwell: "Teachers are, even with the Zoom, they are amazing at just picking up things and seeing things. They go into that profession because they love teaching and they want to be with kids and they truly deeply genuinely care about the kids, so they are watching and they do a great job. But we're going to miss things, for sure."

Molly Parker of The Southern contributed to this report.


Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.


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