by Maria Ramos Chertok April 2020
I was talking to a friend on the phone, doing a “Covid check-in” as I’ve come to call them. Our conversation touched on the usual pandemic topics: how we’re holding up, what we’re doing to make meaning, how we’re spending time. Then she brought up the kids. “I can’t stop thinking about all the kids who are being sexually abused at home. Now they can’t even escape to school or find temporary relief when the abuser is at work.” I felt her statement hit me like a virtual gut punch. I’d been thinking about victims of domestic violence, but had stopped short of actually tapping into the children victims of abuse. As she spoke, I let my guard down and stopped compartmentalizing. I felt the sadness, the fear, and the unimaginable pain of having nowhere at all to go.
There has been media coverage about the rise in domestic violence during the shelter in place mandate of the pandemic. It is of special interest to me because as a child my mother, a women’s rights activist, opened our come as a shelter for battered women and their children. Her work in the area continues into her seventies as the Director of several shelters for battered and homeless women. https://www.strengthenoursisters.org. After law school, I too worked in the field as a crisis counselor for victims of domestic violence, so my mind and heart went to these victims first as I thought about the many less visible impacts of the covid-19 pandemic.
I was on a webinar hosted by the Building Movement Project this last week listening to speakers talk about the impact of the pandemic on their communities. One speaker was Claudia Medina, the Executive Director of Enlace Comunitario, a nonprofit in New Mexico serving Spanish speaking victims of domestic violence www.enlacenm.org. She shared that many abusive partners have lost their jobs, so they are at home 24/7 with the victims. This same week I read that The United Nations is calling for urgent action to combat a global rise in domestic violence during coronavirus lockdowns.
But, what about the children of sexual abuse who are forced into sequestration with abusers? These children have very little support and visibility during non-pandemic conditions. Minors have very few legal rights and very few ways to access supportive resources. Children are essentially property of their parents. It is hard to intervene in that legal relationship and remove a parent’s access to their child. On top of that, abusers often threaten harm if the abuse is disclosed. Fear of harm, combined with shame, make it difficult to speak out. When a child does speak out, often they are not believed and sometimes they are blamed. For younger children they might not be aware that what is being done is illegal and improper.
April, as it turns out, is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. On April 8, 2020, the WHO issued a Joint Leader’s statement, “Violence against Children: A hidden crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.” https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/08-04-2020-joint-leader-s-statement—violence-against-children-a-hidden-crisis-of-the-covid-19-pandemic#.Xpb6IDWmiSw.facebook
In the meantime, what can you do? To begin, please tell the children in your life that no one has a right to touch their body anytime, in any way without their permission. That includes you. Listen to your children if they tell you that someone has touched them in a way that wasn’t respectful. Pay attention to what the children in your life share with you. Treat what they have to say as if it were as important as what you have to say.
As the saying goes, “World peace begins at home,” and what could be a better use of your time sheltering in place than creating a sense of wellbeing and peace for children?
Another thing you can do is donate to organizations working with survivors.
My friend’s last words during our Covid check-in were, “We must find a new way.” May this crisis propel us to find a new way to detect abuse, listen carefully, and provide support to children suffering from sexual abuse.