WEST CHESTER, Pa. - The coronavirus pandemic is leaving emotional scars on an entire generation of children, but the most devastating damage may be happening out of view.
Online schools and a lack of social interaction have left teachers, coaches, and other adults unable to intervene in cases of abuse.
It's an issue that's become a large concern for leaders in Chester County.
Chester County Children's Advocacy Center sits inside the district attorney's office in the Borough of West Chester.
The colorful walls, pictures, and books provide a comfortable environment and paint a far happier picture than the stories told there. It's where victims of child abuse share their stories.
Over the past year, the room has been much quieter than it should have been.
"I'm very concerned. I think we have an epidemic on our hands that I don't think has been properly addressed, frankly," said Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan.
Teachers and coaches - mandated abuse reporters - aren't seeing children in person during the pandemic.
In Chester County, reports to a state-run hotline for child abuse and neglect are down 42% over the past year. All the while, most people were home more, and under more stress.
"If that abuse is coming from the home, in that scenario if they're exposed to the family more, that creates additional potential for abuse," said Detective Sergeant Joe Walton, of Chester County Detectives.
"We've seen an escalation in domestic violence cases, we just don't know the number of kids who have been hurt along the way as well. So, I'm very fearful about what's gone on in the past year," Ryan said.
Reports of abuse and neglect may be down, but other numbers are up. Internet crimes against children and child pornography have seen a projected increase of 40% in the county.
"Some physical abuse of the much younger kids are up, so some of the reports we are getting maybe are more serious than they might be if kids were going to all the places they would normally go," said Deputy District Attorney Erin O'Brien.
O'Brien says they are also seeing a sharp increase in cases related to "Omegle" – a free online website that connects users with complete strangers. The site gained popularity through TikTok.
"We're seeing just a lot kids connecting with strangers on the internet than we did a year ago and younger kids who are spending more time on the internet and tablets who are then connecting with these older people," O'Brien said.
Ryan is pushing new training as a way to make improvements. It's called 'Stewards of Children,' and it's a free, two-hour virtual workshop open to any adult.
They hope to train 5% of Chester County by the end of 2021.
"It's to teach adults how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse," said County Coordinator Charlotte Fabian. "A lot of prevention is minimizing the risk, minimizing the risk of one on one exposure maybe with adults who do know, adults who don't know."
County leaders encourage any organization engaging with children to have a written code of conduct distributed to all parents and kids.
The training also teaches adults when to push for more transparency.
The free training is being offered on April 21 and April 29. To sign up, visit their website.
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