The Children’s Advocacy Center reported a substantial rise in amount of forensic interviews last month, courtesy of COVID-19.
“While COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the children and families we serve, what has critically affected the children is that because of COVID, parents did not get substance abuse treatment they were used to getting,” said Amanda Tant, Advocates for Children’s senior director of Advocacy and Prevention Services. “Children missed vital appointments with mental health therapists and doctors.
“Due to COVID, financial resources in homes were significantly impacted. Unfortunately, this caused an increase in neglect and abuse. We are now seeing the effects of that, with our number of interviews doubling.”
The CAC has completed nearly 300 interviews so far in 2020, which is an increase of about 40 more than last year at this point.
“We average around 30 interviews a month typically,” Tant said. “In March of 2020, we interviewed 21 children and in September of 2020, we completed 61 forensic interviews.
“In March and April of this year, our numbers of interviews and children we were serving drastically decreased. We expected this due to the events that were occurring at the time.”
However, the opposite was true for the month of September.
“In September, we saw more children and had more forensic interviews than this Child Advocacy Center has ever before,” Tant said. “These numbers were not surprising to us, unfortunately.
“In March and April, children were forced out of school and into their homes. In September, schools were finally back in session. In-person school is vital to our children. School staff are the ones who are seeing children every day. They know when something is wrong or out of the ordinary. And they know how to respond and react.”
Opened in 2008, the local CAC operates under the umbrella of Advocates for Children, a Cartersville nonprofit that provides numerous programs and services that aid in the awareness, prevention and treatment of child abuse. Advocates assisted 6,723 area youth and 2,118 adults in 2019.
“A local attorney formed the first CAC in Alabama in the early ’80s,” Tant said. “He saw the need for children to have a safe place to tell someone about their abuse. Someplace other than the local DFCS office or the local police station.”
Situated at 113 Douglas St. in Cartersville, the CAC has served more than 2,200 children since it opened.
“This number climbs every year,” Tant said. “One in 10 children are sexually abused by their 18th birthday. The CAC is a place where children can tell their stories of abuse and caregivers can receive the support they need.
“The CAC functions around a Multi-Disciplinary Team made up of local law enforcement, mental health, medical professionals, DA's office, CASA, DFCS, juvenile court and the school systems. The MDT works for every child seen at the CAC to ensure that they receive the proper services.”
Echoing Tant’s comments, Rachel Castillo — Advocates’ president and CEO — also believes the increase in interviews stems from the pandemic and children heading back to school.
“I wish I can say I was surprised, but this was something that we were anticipating and were prepared to handle,” Castillo said. “During the pandemic, parents were feeling the stress of loss or decrease in their finances, homeschooling, and childcare being closed, providing for their families and other challenges. Parents were also coping with their own mental health challenges, like depression and anxiety.”
She noted factors, like these, have “historically led” to a rise in domestic violence, and child abuse and maltreatment.
“We knew that when the children returned to school and the teachers were once again able to report suspected cases of abuse, our numbers would rise,” Castillo said. “What was surprising was the increase. In September, we had a 103% increase over the previous month and the highest number of interviews we had conducted in one month over the last several years.”
With the demand for CAC’s services, its staff is working hard to conduct the surge of interviews. In 2018, when Castillo joined Advocates’ team, there was one forensic interviewer and now there are three.
“Even with three interviewers on staff, it can be difficult to get all the interviews completed promptly because we only have one interview room,” she said. “Our staff has been working long hours to meet the demand for our services.
“The job of the forensic interviewers is one of the most difficult jobs that Advocates has. They listen day in and day out to accounts of physical and sexual abuse, family violence and neglect. This can take a great toll on their emotional and mental well-being. At Advocates, we encourage all staff to practice self-care and try to provide opportunities as an organization to take a break and rest together.”