On a normal day at Kristi House, the phones don’t stop ringing for long.
Not that it's a good thing when calls pour into Miami-Dade's children's advocacy center — it usually means a child is being sexually abused and needs to be seen for psychological counseling or forensic interviews.
Each call that comes through is cause for concern, but it presents an opportunity to identify abuse and provide help. What's worrying right now, Kristi House CEO Amanda Altman says, is the phones aren't ringing much at all.
Michael Dolce, a Palm Beach County attorney who specializes in sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and domestic abuse cases, says he worries about the barriers to seeking and providing help during the pandemic.
Child abuse and domestic violence can go hand in hand, Dolce says. Those experiencing abuse, under normal circumstances, might run to a friend or family member's house. That's not possible right now because of the fear of getting sick or spreading COVID-19 to others.
"Safety plans are diminishing," Dolce says. "Someone might wait for an abuser to leave, go to work, go see a buddy. It's harder to [seek help] if an abuser is home 24/7."
And the longer a child is socially isolated, abuse can become more severe.
"There's a certain level of restraint on the part of an abuser when the person knows the child will be seen in the community the next day — the kid is going to go to school with bruises," Dolce says. "Now abusers don't experience that restraint. There is no school tomorrow or next week or next month. You have this perfect storm of dynamics going on that really promotes abuse of children and domestic violence."
Finding help in these times might be more difficult, but it's not impossible, Dolce stresses. Florida courts can still hear petitions for restraining orders and risk protection orders, which can remove guns from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Florida law requires any person who knows or suspects that a child is being abused to report that information to the state's abuse hotline. Because children generally have less agency than adults, it's critical that people look out and speak up for youngsters.
"Children are not good advocates for their own safety, we know that," Dolce says. "Abuse intimidates a child into silence most of the time. People have to be trained to notice signs of that. Now we have children exhibiting those signs only at home. The only way to compensate that I can think of is that if Floridians know families with a history of abuse, this is the time to check in with those families on a daily basis."
Dolce recommends that anyone who's aware of a family's history of abuse or neglect — or anyone who suspects the same — send a text or call the person in a household who might need help.
"Tell them to not hesitate to ask for help," Dolce says. "Tell them: 'I'll give you a code.' Volunteer that. Likewise, if we have an at-risk family and we can't reach them, that's the time to call for a welfare check."
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