TAMPA, Fla. — Child abuse calls are down during the pandemic, but advocates say that's a troubling sign that cases may be going unreported or unnoticed.
Mindy Murphy is the president and CEO of the Spring of Tampa Bay, Tampa's domestic violence center.
"The fact that kids aren't going to school again means there are fewer eyes on that family," Murphy said. "We know people who abuse their partners, their intimate partners, are also much more likely to abuse their children."
When children are in school, teachers, staff and administrators, who suspect abuse, are legally required to report it, but with many kids at home, e-learning, they can't report what they don't see.
Psychologist Dr. Valerie McClain says the responsibility of protecting children now falls on all of us in the community to take action.
"Be calm about it, be vigilant, and if something is going on, be active," McClain said. "We have this concept of bystander apathy. It means you see something going on, but you don't intervene. And the important thing is to actually speak up."
She says failing to do so can be devastating. The physical abuse is horrendous, and the emotional and psychological scars can be just as severe and life long.
"When they get scared, when they're terrified and afraid to go home — they can't concentrate. Areas of the brain that are in survival mode override areas of the brain that learn," McClain said. "Such as learning in the classroom. So it causes learning disabilities. It can lead to problems with succeeding in school. So they may not do well in school."
Even if the abuse isn't directed toward them, seeing a parent or family member abused can cause a devastating, helpless feeling.
"It's terribly damaging, even more so because they're in a position where they want to rescue or protect their parent, but they're children, they can't do that. They lack the capability to intervene, so it causes double damage because they blame themselves for not being able to rescue their parent," said McClain.
Sadly, abused children often take out their aggression on others.
McClain has experienced this situation in her practice.
"I've had several instances of that where it's random violence, and then it's staged where they take videos of it. So I think the aggression is kind of encapsulated because they didn't have a chance to act out while they were going through the quarantine."
McClain is expecting an increase in cases of children experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Because COVID is life-threatening, we've heard about multiple deaths and children who are very young, just like other tragedies, like hurricanes, natural disasters, they don't know quite how to wrap their brain around that," McClain said. "So there's going to be increased aggression because they feel powerless."
It puts the call to action phrase, "See something, say something," into perspective.