By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
It’s an issue that is closer to home than anyone wants to think and, according to the Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services Center at Children’s of Alabama, the pandemic may be making it worse.
Research shows that increased stress levels among parents is a significant predictor for physical abuse and child neglect. With COVID-19 resulting in financial and health-related stress, an abusive parent may place the brunt of their aggression on their children, who have been at home more often than in a typical school year.
The CHIPS center has served as an outpatient clinic where children who have experienced abuse and their families could seek refuge since 1995. But their work goes beyond their clinic walls.
When it comes to identifying the characteristics that signify abuse, teachers and fellow classmates often are the sources who point to potential problems. Sometimes that abuse is of a sexual nature.
In 2016, the Legislature passed Erin’s Law, which requires schools to provide age-appropriate lessons to educate kids on child sexual abuse prevention.
“We’ve been working with Homewood City Schools since Erin’s Law was passed,” said Deb Schneider, director of the CHIPS Center. “Homewood was our first school that we went into after the law was passed.”
Schneider has a long history of working with many schools in the area, especially as students have been found to be in distress.
Homewood City Schools Prevention and Development Coordinator Carissa Anthony notes that the CHIPS team always has been professional when it came to teaching kids hard subjects in an interactive and appropriate way.
“Their lessons are always so interactive and well-received by the students,” Anthony said. “They are well-received by teachers, and I have even heard from some parents who said that the lessons sparked great conversations at home.”
Adapting During a Pandemic
When the pandemic hit, the CHIPS staff was unable to visit schools and provide their essential lessons. They had to adapt.
“Our IT department helped us do a Zoom presentation to a school in Pickens County, and then they saw the need for us to be able to keep doing this in the future,” Schneider said.
So, the staff reached out to Anthony and began working on a standard for virtual presentations.
“I could not be more pleased, especially at the elementary level,” Anthony said. “You know, in a normal classroom setting, only one or two kids will respond, but all of the kids were getting involved and every child was having their voice heard.”
The students responded very well, with the CHIPS representatives allowing them to interact through the screen with hand signals, Anthony said. The CHIPS team also is well versed in making the subject approachable in a way that isn’t overly frightening to kids.
“It can be scary,” Anthony said. “It can be two things: it can be so scary and it can be silly, because you are talking about body parts and it’s funny. It elicits strong emotions either way.”
Anthony has sat in on multiple lessons and found that the format has allowed teachers to take on a more active role in the lesson.
“This gives teachers the same language that the CHIPS representatives use,” Anthony said. “Now they have a common way of talking about this.”
It’s not an easy subject to discuss in the home, Schneider said.
“Parents can’t just say something to their child one time and think that they have understood it,” Schneider said.
“We have an entire facility here at Children’s that is dedicated to this issue and treating children who are victims of abuse,” Schneider said.
It’s a hard reality, but a reality, nonetheless, that child abuse is not alien or uncommon.
“The best thing we can do for children is help them understand that that is wrong, number one; and that that adult is the one that’s wrong,” Anthony said. “The child is never wrong. To understand that and to equip them with a plan of what they can do if someone tries to hurt them in some way or someone does hurt them in some way, how they can find their voice and get help,” is the mission, she said.
Taking the Work Home
For Anthony, helping the CHIPS team is something that goes beyond her desk.
Her daughters have been getting involved, helping put together packets to be sent to schools in preparation for CHIPS lessons.
“It started out because I needed help for Homewood schools,” Anthony said. “I knew Deb and her team were overrun and I knew I needed kits to be put together for Homewood, so I wanted to help.
“If they are spending time putting kits together, they aren’t spending that time helping children. So, we can take this on.”
Anthony’s Berry Middle School seventh grader, Morgan, and Spain Park freshman, Maddie, have set up an assembly line at home to help get the job done. It’s also a bit nostalgic for her daughters.
They didn’t get the same lessons in elementary school, but Anthony used to read them the books the facility provided for her Homewood lessons.
“They would say, ‘We remember you reading these books to us,” and it grew from there and sparked good conversations with them,” Anthony said. “They have both had situations where their friends told them some things and they had to help them. They knew what to do from us reading those little books and talking.”