COVID-19 has created a “perfect storm” for unprecedented levels of childhood sexual abuse in Vermont and across the nation.
Victims, trapped at home with their abusers and physically separated from the trained eyes of teachers and administrators, are also spending unprecedented amounts of time online, increasing the risk of sexual targeting and exploitation by predators.
Evidence shows that during public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, child sexual abuse risks increase because of stressors, and financial and social support loss. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at the height of COVID, the amount of known sexual offenses reported online nearly doubled. Unfortunately, many in the fight feel this serious problem might not go away anytime soon.
Linda Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, urges parents and the community to be aware of the situation, study ways to recognize abuse, and connect with legislators to help pass three current bills that address some of the problems.
“The best thing that can happen is to prevent this from happening in the first place,” said Johnson. “Tens of thousands of children are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation in the U.S. every year — in their homes, communities and online. Child sexual abuse remains Vermont’s most frequently reported and substantiated form of child abuse.”
The Banner spoke with Johnson about some of the issues stemming from the pandemic, the isolation many children of abuse face right now and what Vermonters can do about it.
“The number one thing to understand is that children cannot protect themselves from child sexual abuse,” Johnson said. “They have complicated, dependent relationships with those who offend them. They depend on those people for food, clothing, education, shelter, for life itself. Many of these kids might fear a parent going to jail, and everyone else in the family might be furious with them because maybe an income stream is gone. They might lose their home, have to change schools, their lives disrupted, not to mention the shame and embarrassment they feel. It becomes a complex, lifetime issue for some of these kids.”
The average age of a person coming forward to report sexual abuse is 51, according to Johnson. Many can never reveal the hidden secrets that might have happened long ago.
Teachers — the number one reporters of sexual abuse — are mandated reporters. Kids depend on teachers, administrators, school nurses and counselors in school to check in with them and report abuse if they suspect it. They don’t have to know it; they just have to suspect it. That can make a big difference.
During the pandemic, kids had unprecedented access to the internet. “It’s a required tool for school and communication with friends and family right now, but kids don’t always use the internet for what we protective adults have in mind for them. Sometimes they wander around in there, discovering, using their curiosity, inquiring. It’s a tool that can take them anywhere they want to go. Unfortunately, online predators are extremely aware of that.”
Johnson feels that parents need to know what their children are doing online, and that parents are responsible for knowing that their child is safe.
“They have to have an understanding from day one with their child that they will be looking at that content from time to time. It doesn’t mean kids won’t hide things, but you have to make an effort to see what’s happening.”
Johnson also urges parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of sharing information on social media and gaming online. The person you’re gaming with right now might appear to be an 11-year-old kid in their profile photo, but that might not be the reality.
“There are all of these complexities in our world that were never there before,” Johnson said. “For too many kids, it might feel like really good attention, that these people are ‘really listening to me’ or ‘they are really interested in me.’ Most sexual abuse of children, when it’s physical, is not violent. It can be very confusing for a child.”
She said it can be hard for an attention-starved child to betray that person who seems to care about them and give up the emotional benefits and time that no one else supplies.
“The biggest thing parents can do is to keep an open relationship with their child,” according to Johnson. “Listen to your child, communicate, and observe them. If you see changes in their demeanor or their ability to sleep or eat or changes to any of their normal routines, spend some time with them. Even just sitting in the dark, or talking on a car ride. There’s a chance that things will be shared.”
Prevent Child Abuse Vermont has three school-based curriculums available for kids that are used throughout Vermont schools. The group’s developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed programming has been used to train child care providers, teachers, students, parents, social workers, medical professionals and others since 1990 and has resulted in the marked decrease of 71 percent in victims and 77 percent in youth who have sexually abused younger children, according to their website.
There are three bills moving through the Vermont Legislature that address human trafficking, define “grooming” for the purpose of sexually abusing a child and end the possibility of forced child marriages in Vermont, Johnson said. “They need to be supported.”
The three bills — Human Trafficking (S.103), the Grooming of Children (H.659), and Ending Child Marriage (H.631) — would go a long way in addressing these particular issues and finding a way forward, Johnson said. The Senate bill, in committee, provides limited immunity from prosecution to a reporting victim or witness to a crime that arose from the person’s involvement in prostitution or human trafficking.
“This is important because people who might know would most likely be hesitant to report it for fear of prosecution,” Johnson said. “It removes barriers in sharing information that could help a child, whose life maybe is at stake.”
The first of two House bills, also in committee, proposes expanding the statute prohibiting luring a child and grooming behaviors intended to facilitate sexual contact with a child.
“This bill defines what that particular behavior is,” Johnson said. “Not only can a child be groomed, but sometimes it’s the whole family or even the whole community that can be groomed, as well. This bill would help make it easier to identify this behavior and to let people trust their guts when they witness these things happening.”
The second House bill proposes to raise the age at which a person can obtain a civil marriage to 18 years of age, with no exceptions. Under current Vermont law, if you are between 16 and 18, you can marry but need the consent of a parent or guardian. Vermont law also allows individuals under 16 to marry with special permission from the court.
“This bill would protect young people from marrying prematurely, opening the door to a lot of misery, and loss of education and potential before their lives have had a chance even to start,” Johnson said.
“We have to stay vigilant. Twenty-five percent of all girls will have been sexually abused by the age of 18. If all those grownups who were victims had spots on their faces, you couldn’t go to the grocery store without seeing dots everywhere. It’s the invisible pandemic,” she said.
The good news is that with the proper help, there is healing, and there is recovery. The faster the abuse is discovered, the easier the recovery. However, the closer to the child the abuser is, the tougher it is.
“We are ahead of the curve here in Vermont with the saturation of these preventive programs in our schools and with parents,” Johnson said. “However, child sexual abuse remains the number one form of child abuse and neglect, even though we’ve been able to reduce it. I think the awareness of the #MeToo movement that we have the right to control our bodies, to say no and to set boundaries has helped. I do think this is a new day.”
“Children believe what they’re told. It’s what we’ve drilled into them. ‘Listen to grandpa.’ ‘Listen to the babysitter.’ ‘Do what your teacher tells you.’ We tell children to listen to anyone who’s older than them. Mostly we want them to, but if something is awry, we need to tell them that they can tell us about anything, and we will listen. There’s no simple, magic wand here.”
And whether those children ever tell us what happened or not, Johnson said, we need to make sure they understand that it was never their fault.
Prevent Child Abuse Vermont has a trove of information, advice and programs for parents, teachers and anyone committed to ending childhood sexual abuse. Visit pcavt.org for more information, or call 800-CHILDREN.