After months of isolation, cases of child abuse return to pre-pandemic levels

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Despite a near standstill in new child abuse cases over the first half of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, local officials say the gradual reopening of schools and other safe spaces — as well as a jump in requests for social services and mental health services — has helped investigators and other professionals provide support and assistance for abused kids.

Chief Deputy Derrick O’Meara, head of the area’s Child Advocacy Center, said there was a 50% decrease in the number of reports in spring 2020 due to the coronavirus quarantine, which cut children off from the places and trusted people where they could report abuse. The CAC is made up of its own counselors and advocates, working alongside law enforcement officers from the Rome and Utica police departments, along with the state police and the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office. These investigators and advocates work with child victims, while also pursuing cases and criminal charges against abusers.

“What happened with the shutdown was people, particularly children, became isolated as they had not ever been before. For several months, we were not getting anywhere near the number of reports we would anticipate getting,” O’Meara stated.

Then by June 2020, he said the number or reports started to go back up because children and families were finding other ways to report. Specifically, O’Meara said months of lockdown led to increased anxiety and depression, and people began to seek out social services and other counseling opportunities, which the CAC also offers.

“When we saw the rise in mental health services being sought out, we saw a corresponding rise of reports of child sex abuse cases coming to us through those mental health workers,” O’Meara stated.

So far this year, there have been 304 reported cases in Oneida County, which officials said is around the expected amount.

“Things are what I would call normal now. This is not something you can ever anticipate or gauge. This isn’t something that happens as a matter of nature or clockwork. Numbers always go up and down a little bit,” O’Meara said. Three hundred cases is “where I would anticipate we would be” at this time in the year.

O’Meara was joined by County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. and other county officials at the CAC in Utica on Thursday to mark the end of April, which is Child Abuse Awareness Month. Every year, county leaders gather to place symbolic blue pinwheels along the sidewalk outside the CAC.

“While we recognize this in April every year, this is 24/7, 365 days a year in protecting and seeking out violators of child abuse and neglect,” said Picente on Thursday. “I couldn’t be more proud as county executive of this CAC and the work that it’s done, and the model it’s become around the country. Our message is simple today: if you see something, report it.”

According to officials, there were 19,984 abused and neglected children served by advocacy centers across the state. The Oneida County CAC served 869 children last year.

“The most important part of this operation is to...to make that victim who comes into this facility, who has been abused, whether physically or sexually, to make that child whole by counseling him or her and getting him or her into the proper treatment,” said Undersheriff Joseph Lisi on Thursday. Lisi was O’Meara’s predecessor at the head of the CAC.

“Because if that isn’t done, the child has lasting effects in his or her life,” Lisi stated.

To report sexual abuse, contact your local law enforcement agency or call the Oneida County domestic and sexual abuse hotline at 315-797-7740.

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