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Flint, MI— This article will get tough to read. Don’t stop.
Turning away when it gets uncomfortable reinforces the cycle of child sexual abuse. It’s part of the problem. And in Flint, Genesee County, and beyond, as the pandemic drags on, that problem is growing.
Since the onset of COVID-19, child advocates in Flint and Genesee County have seen a disturbing rise in the severity of child sexual abuse. Though extreme child sexual abuse happens, it’s become an everyday occurrence over the past year, Claudnyse Holloman, president and CEO of Flint-based Voices for Children Advocacy Center said.
She can rattle off a recent slew of child sexual abuse cases as easily as reciting her ABCs.
A little girl “hogtied’ down and sold for sex. Objects found in children’s orifices. A grandmother who forced her grandchild to perform oral sex repeatedly. Full on penetration “front to back.”
“The abuse is more egregious,” Holloman said.
Angela Essenburg is a forensic interviewer who has performed over 3,000 interviews with child abuse victims during her 12-year career. She’s noticed the recent trend of more, and worse, cases.
“It’s a shock to the conscious,” she said.
Like Voices for Children, child welfare agencies across the country are reporting an uptick in severe child abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health emergencies increase the likelihood of child abuse and neglect.
Looking just at the numbers, it would appear that child abuse is going down. Reports of child abuse, in general, have decreased by 20%–70%, across the U.S., according to the CDC.
But fewer reports don’t mean fewer instances of child abuse. All it means is fewer people are reporting. And the increase of severity in the cases people like Essenburg have seen suggest that cases are likely going up as well as getting worse—but aren’t being reported.
The reason? Child advocates say it’s due to decreased in-person contact between children and mandated reporters, like teachers.
“What’s new because of the pandemic is the increased amount of time that kids have to spend with their perpetrator. They don’t get a break by going to school or spending time with their friends,” Holloman said. “Teachers are our biggest reporters typically when kids are in school. And so, when you have kids who are not in school, there’s no outlet, there’s nobody.”
In Genesee County, abuse victims have resorted to self-reporting.
“This is happening every single day and the kids are fed up with it. They’re running away. We’ve had a number of kids who have just decided that they were just done. And so that’s how we found out about it,” Holloman said.
The pandemic has caused undue stress on parents and families, which may contribute to the severe sexual abuse, Essenburg said, adding that in some instances, parents have been forced to leave their kids in the care of someone they otherwise wouldn’t out of financial need.
“They’re trying to figure out how to be teacher, parent and employee all at the same time where typically, it’s segmented…. And it’s like trying to wear three hats at once and trying to figure out how to balance those three hats on top of each other,” Essenburg said.
However, COVID-19 is only a symptom of what Essenburg refers to as Genesee County’s ongoing “silent epidemic” of child abuse.
According to data reported by Child Protective Services, there have been 1,461 reported cases of some kind of child abuse—sexual or otherwise—in Genesee County in 2020. Of these, 839 come from Flint.
This averages out to an abuse rate of 35.1, meaning there are 35.1 child abuse cases for every 1,000 kids living in the City of Flint. In Detroit, which has a population six times that of Flint’s, the abuse rate is 21.3, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving child welfare.
CPS only handles cases in which the caregiver or parent is causing harm or an unsafe environment, meaning the data excludes cases where a stranger or a non-caregiver was the abuser.
Add in cases where the primary caregiver was not the perpetrator and that rate becomes much, much higher—about one in four children in Genesee County, Holloman said.
“The national average is between one in eight in some cities, and one in six in other cities,” Essenburg said. “When you start thinking one in four, and you take a normal sized classroom of 30 kids in a classroom, that is a significant number of kids in that classroom that are being abused.”
Child sexual abuse is systemic, like a tradition passed down from generation to generation, Essenburg said.
“Because it’s a systemic problem that continues to happen generation after generation, this increase in child abuse or sexual abuse is not something that’s new because of the pandemic,” she said.
Adults in families where child sexual abuse is common often attempt to justify it, Essenburg said. For example, they might say a parent is too stressed or by excuse someone for abusing children because they were abused, too.
But at large, it’s a problem society is uncomfortable talking about.
“We don’t want to think about four-year-olds being touched in their private areas. We don’t want to think about an eight-year-old who is underweight because they’re not eating at home, or a child who is severely physically abused such that their collarbone is broken. Nobody really wants to think about those things,” Essenburg said.
And as hard as it is for adults to discuss, it’s even harder for the kids who have experienced the trauma.
“We can sit in the room and talk to the kids about everything. They’re going to talk to us about songs. They’re going to talk to us about what they like to do. They’re going to share their favorite TikTok dance that they’ve done. But when we get ready to talk about the trauma that’s happened, their whole body disposition changes because they have to go back to that place. They put their head down, they want to hide their face. They don’t necessarily understand all of it, all of why it’s wrong, but they know that it doesn’t feel right,” Holloman said.
Preventing Child Abuse
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and blue pinwheels may spring up in yards across Flint to serve as a reminder. But being aware is only one step. Prevention takes action.
However, due to the systemic nature of child abuse, prevention is difficult, Essenburg said.
“It takes us as a community to become more informed. So, it’s learning about what child abuse is….One, recognizing that it’s happening, but two, being change agents ourselves to try and stop it from happening,” Holloman said.
Voices for Children has created a guide for identifying different types of child abuse and how to report.
Signs of child sexual abuse include:
- A child who attaches very quickly to strangers or new adults in their environment.
- A child who has an unusual sexual knowledge or behavior for their age
- A child who has difficulty walking or sitting
“Let us be the generation that stops it by being honest about what’s going on and checking on our children…. It’s not the kids that have to do something about it. It’s not the kids that have to stand up and have a voice every day. We see kids that come in here that are brave, they tell their story, but it’s not the kids that need to be doing that. It’s the adult that needs to be paying attention and figuring out why kids are capable of being with these people that are abusing them, and why we as a community are not doing enough about it,” Holloman said.