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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and Child Abuse Prevention Month, and in a month of social distancing, there’s concern there are incidents going unreported.

“In recent years there has been progress made in the area of child abuse prevention, but we must continue to move forward with the message that child abuse and neglect cannot and will not be tolerated,” said Kristin Johnson, executive director of Child Network. “We as a community have a responsibility in knowing how to recognize abuse and neglect and knowing the proper steps to take to report suspected child abuse and neglect.”

Unfortunately, she said, many of the events and activities we have planned have been either canceled or postponed, though there are alternative activities and prevention information throughout the month available on the Child Network Facebook page.

KC-CASA has an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence. KC-CASA and ISAS along with many individuals, youth, communities, schools, and agencies around the state of Illinois will take action to increase attention about sexual assault and to end sexual violence.

“This April is different due to the COVID-19 pandemic; KC-CASA and ISAS have decided to move in-person events to a virtual setting and are finding creative ways to engage and educate our communities while supporting and honoring survivors of sexual violence. KC-CASA and ISAS encourage communities to stand with survivors and help promote awareness sexual assault by participating in their virtual activities in the comforts of your home,” said Tracey Noe Slach, executive director of KC-CASA. “We believe and support you.”

The virtual activities such as a book club, “Watching Wednesdays”, and “Art is Healing” can be found on KC-CASA’s Facebook page. There’s also information about its Take Back the Night virtual rally and Seven Day SAAM Week-Long Challenge. The KC-CASA Prevention and Outreach team has created weekly toolkits. New activities will be sent out weekly on Tuesdays, and one can join the email list by emailing prevention@kc-casa.org.

Johnson pointed out that there has been a decline in hotline calls made to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services since the stay at home order began. “However, the reduction in calls doesn’t mean that less children are being abused and neglected. What it means is that people, especially mandated reporters, who generally see children face to face can’t right now.

“Child Network has cause for concern for kids during the stay at home order. Here’s why. Two factors affect the reporting of child abuse: where the abuse happens, and where the abuse is disclosed or discovered. This period of isolation, while necessary to keep children and families safe from the deadly pandemic, is a perfect storm for child abuse to go unreported. Abuse most frequently happens in the home.”

She said that 81 percent of perpetrators are either a parent or an unmarried partner of a parent. Statistics show that in a given year, about 20 percent of cases are when kids harm other kids. In many cases, that's a sibling, she said. “Kids are at greater risk at home than anywhere else.

“Kids in isolation have less or no contact with teachers. Teachers and other school staff make the largest proportion of child abuse reports; about one-in-five reports comes from a professional at school. With schools across the country closed or using online learning, teachers and other school professionals have little or no opportunity to see any children suffering from abuse in person, away from their abusers. Online education settings provide only a glimpse into the lives of students and may be heavily monitored by abusers. Teachers may miss telltale signs of abuse. Just like when kids come back from summer vacation, a time when teachers get a wave of abuse disclosures from returning students, we expect that the reopening of schools after lockdown orders have been lifted will see a large uptick in reports from teachers.”

Harbor House is an organization which empowers families, individuals and communities by providing domestic violence services, advocacy and prevention. It is the only domestic violence agency serving Iroquois and Kankakee counties. Domestic Violence Awareness Month is in October.

It also supports Child Network and KC-CASA especially during this month’s awareness campaigns.

It has also been working hard to counter domestic violence in these times of sheltering in place.

“The stay at home order is a great way to try to minimize the spread of COVID-19; however, it has negative ramifications that directly impact survivors of domestic violence. During this time, survivors are being further isolated from their support systems, abusers have new tactics of abuse to maintain/gain power and control in the relationship, abuse may escalate because the abuser feels they're losing power and control, there is increased financial tension as our country reaches a record-breaking unemployment rate, and more,” said Jenny Schoenwetter, executive director of Harbor House.

“Research has shown that after natural disasters, there is a spike of domestic violence, and that fact has rung true in countries who have already experienced some of the worst of COVID-19. It is a trying time for domestic violence agencies across the world as we quickly adjust our services to reflect today's needs.

“For individuals in abusive relationship, I'd strongly recommend making a safety plan and calling Harbor House. In your safety plan, you can think through who to call in an emergency, where you would go, what items you would take — and even pack a bag and hide it at a trusted person's home, where your medications and important documents are, and more. Harbor House is always here to help you brainstorm to ensure you leave as safely as possible. If you feel leaving isn't the best option right now, it's important to make a safety plan that includes not wearing long items like scarves or jewelry that could be used to strangle you, assess your partner's use and level of force to determine a quick plan to protect you and your children, it your partner becomes physically violent, identify the safe places in your house and rooms with exits so that if abuse occurs, you can move them to that location for your safety and quick exit; and more.”

She offered more on safety planning through the website thehotline.org/help/path-to-safety.

As it isn’t known when the call to stay at home will end, Johnson gave advise to families.

“Stay calm. Some ways to reduce stress while families are staying home include creating a schedule to provide structure and a sense of normalcy for children, maintaining social interaction with family and friends through phone calls or virtual playdates, and limiting talk about the coronavirus in front of children. When parents do talk to children about the coronavirus, it’s important to provide honest and age appropriate information. It’s also essential to remain calm during these conversations since children are quick to pick up on their parents’ anxiety. Pay close attention to what children watch on TV regarding COVID-19 and use this as an opportunity to talk about ways to reduce spreading germs, such as good hand washing habits.”

Slach said those who have been sexually assaulted need to go to the hospital to get forensic testing done.

“It’s difficult not getting to see people face to face,” Slach said, but she wanted to stress that the organization is still available to those who need help.

For more information:

Someone from Harbor House is available 24/7 through its 24-hour hotline at 815-932-5800 that is answered by caring, understanding domestic violence professionals. Its services are free and confidential and include adult and youth counseling, support with the court system, connections to community resources, emergency shelter, prevention and education training, case management and more.

If one suspects that a child is being abused or neglected, please call The Child Abuse & Neglect Reporting Hotline: 1-800-25-ABUSE. If a child is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

KC-CASA will continue to provide all services in a modified manner. Be on the lookout for community updates via our social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Sexual violence doesn’t take a day off and KC-CASA always stands with survivors. Its 24-hour hotline is always open and can be reached at 815-932-3322. For more information about services go online to kc-casa.org.