Maltreatment of children through neglect, abuse, or as the consequence of substance abuse is a serious and persistent national problem. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, in fiscal year (FY) 2019 alone, approximately 656,000 children in the United States experienced abuse and neglect, and an estimated 1,840 died as a result.
Proclaiming April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, President Joseph R. Biden noted that, “The confluence of a devastating pandemic and the worst economic crisis in nearly a century have increased the risk for child abuse and neglect as Americans grapple with the compounding challenges of school and child care facility closures, social isolation, and increased financial instability.” President Biden urged communities across the nation to come together to combat child abuse in all of its forms.
Child abuse can have grave, lifelong consequences, but these outcomes may be mitigated if victims receive timely, evidence-based care. OJJDP provides funding to children’s advocacy centers (CACs) across the country to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases and the treatment of victims using a proven multidisciplinary team approach. These child-focused centers bring together professionals in the medical, law enforcement, child protective services, prosecution, victim advocacy, and mental health fields to offer services in one location to abused children and nonoffending family members.
In FY 2020, OJJDP awarded almost $40 million under the Victims of Child Abuse Act, with nearly $15.4 million going to the National Children’s Alliance to help develop and enhance local centers. OJJDP awarded $5 million to four regional CACs to fund training and technical assistance for state chapters and local CACs.
A primary concern of child abuse prevention professionals since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the risk of fewer child abuse incident reports. The isolation of children from teachers, counselors, and other community professionals due to lockdowns can greatly limit the identification and reporting of child abuse, which is critical to keeping children safe and protected from further harm.
To address this pressing issue, OJJDP’s CAC national partners adapted their support and training to the local centers to focus on telecommunications as a way to continue their investigation and intervention services. The national partners include the National Children’s Alliance, the membership organization and national accrediting body for CACs; the National Children’s Advocacy Center and the Zero Abuse Project, which provide training and technical assistance to child abuse prevention professionals and prosecutors, respectively; and the four regional CACs.
Guided by this intensive training and technical assistance, forensic interviewers were able to conduct virtual interviews on an emergency basis—and in accordance with the national standards established by the National Children’s Alliance—during the shutdown.
The centers’ shift to providing clinical therapy virtually, known as telemental health delivery, has been particularly significant. Nearly all of the centers now rely on some form of telemental health to provide children and families with trauma-focused therapy. “This has been a very positive thing to see,” said Vicky Gwiasda, program manager of the Western Regional Children’s Advocacy Center (WRCAC). During a global crisis that severely limited face-to-face contact, “a whole bunch of kids who wouldn’t have had access to therapy during the pandemic are getting it,” Gwiasda said.
By the end of 2020, the CACs reported child abuse case numbers consistent with prior years. This suggests that, even during the pandemic, child victims continue to be identified and treated effectively with the help of technology.
While the pivot to telemental health appeared to occur overnight at the outset of the pandemic, OJJDP’s CAC national partners began laying the groundwork several years earlier. In 2018, WRCAC began an initiative to help CACs adopt telemental health services as a way to increase access to trauma-focused therapy for families in rural areas. Read more about the initiative in the Stakeholder’s Corner article in this issue.
The other CAC national partners are also supporting telemental health projects. The National Children’s Alliance recently funded 21 subaward grants to local and state CACs to develop telemental heath programs. The Midwest Regional CAC launched an outreach project in 2020 to provide technical support and training to state chapters, CAC leaders, and providers transitioning to telemental health.
Supporting children’s advocacy centers is only one component of OJJDP’s work to ensure the safety and well-being of children. This issue’s Message From the Acting Administrator highlights OJJDP’s efforts to ensure that abused and neglected children receive high-quality representation in dependency court hearings, and build the capacity of attorneys who prosecute child welfare cases. The Office also supports the work of law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies that investigate cases of missing, abducted, and exploited children.
OJJDP’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month webpage includes a video addressing how OJJDP’s CAC national partners responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
An Office of Justice Programs blog post recounts how the National Children’s Advocacy Center, the nation’s first CAC, was established and became the model for more than 900 centers in the United States.
The National Children’s Alliance has developed a resource page to help centers respond to the needs of children and families during the pandemic.