CAMDEN, NJ — With many districts — including Camden City — opting to teach virtually to begin the school year, Camden prosecutor's office officials worry child abuse cases may go unnoticed or unreported especially when someone in the home is the perpetrator.
“A lot of times we receive reports of physical abuse or allegations of sexual abuse from teachers in schools or a school counselor," said Multi-Disciplinary Team Coordinator and victim advocate, Megan Price, noting the inherent challenges of monitoring a child's well-being.
At the end of March, as many New Jersey schools began to instruct remotely the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) says there was a 22% increase in monthly calls from people younger than 18 to their National Sexual Assault Hotline. Half of those calls were from minors and 67% reported abuse by a family member.
Teachers can help spot instances of sexual and other abuse by scheduling one-on-one video chat with students, where they can ask questions or identify signs that a child may need help.
“One obvious one would be a child who’s normally outgoing and active in the classroom, involved answering questions,” said Special Victims Unit Section Chief, Kelly Testa. “If that child suddenly becomes withdrawn and suddenly doesn’t participate, that could be a sign that there’s something going on with the child. It could be a sign of anxiety, but it could be a sign of something more.”
Since New Jersey is considered a "mandatory reporting state," anyone that suspects child abuse is required by law to report it to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency Hotline. You can call 1-877-NJ-Abuse or 1-877-652-2873.
There, callers can submit reports anonymously. Anyone discovered to be a victim is sent to the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) for a forensic interview. The center, which opened in Camden city in 2018, comprises comfortable waiting rooms for children and teenagers designed to reinforce safety.
“We have special interview rooms, we have detectives who are all forensically trained in conducting interviews,” added Testa. “It is a special skill to talk to kids and to get kids to tell you horrific things that have happened to them. It really does take a special training.”
According to Price, the first few weeks of the coronavirus outbreak saw reports of abuse to the hotline were down.
“It’s important to remember that abuse isn’t just bruises, that it’s all sorts of things,” said Price. “Kids absorb the world around them and internalize it. They sometimes blame themselves for something that they had nothing to do with.”
Resources are also available for families who need help providing non-stressful environments for children exposed to domestic violence or outbursts at home.
“I get it, it’s extremely stressful. The family dynamic is so different right now and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Testa. “We’re here and we can assist you and your families in getting you the help that you need to make things easier on your children.”