The 9-year-old girl’s screams could be heard in a video posted on a GoFundMe page. “Help me, help me!” she yells, refusing to get out of her father’s vehicle during a custody exchange.

Through tears, she asks why no one believes her. She does not want to go home with her biological mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Her pleas, which the page says was to be saved from alleged sexual abuse, sparked the #StandWithSophie online campaign last week and, as of this writing, has raised more than $195,000 to help her find justice.

On Aug. 31, the Frisco Police Department released a statement via Twitter stating that the 9-year-old girl, whose parents are in an ongoing custody battle in Collin County, is now at a “safe location.” Police also urged the public to stop sharing false information and speculation online. “While the Frisco Police Department will not usually offer further comment on cases that are this sensitive in nature, we would like the public to know that the child in this case is safe and staying at a safe location,” the department wrote on Twitter. “The Frisco Police Department shares your concerns and continues to partner with various agencies to assure the safety and wellbeing of all involved.”

The 9-year-old’s case is just one of many domestic abuse cases, which experts say are becoming more dangerous as children find themselves secluded from mentors and with parents who are facing economic struggles. They are missing a network of resources that aren’t as readily available during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re seeing a pattern in how quarantine can affect not so much the number of cases but the reporting of the cases,” says Jamie Ginden, community relations director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County based in Plano.

The number of reported abuse cases are down but that doesn’t mean actual abuse is down. Ginden attributes it to the fact that many abuse cases are not being revealed or acknowledged. During a time of virtual meetings, closed churches, and canceled sports team practices, many children are unable to interact with trusted friends and adults such as a doctor, teacher, coach, or church minister who many times initially spot and report abuse. 

The Child Advocacy Center of Collin County (CAC) is expecting an increase in reports when students begin returning to in-person classes in September.

“There was abuse before and we know abuse is not stopping during COVID,” Ginden says. “But what quarantine has done, and it’s sad, is it’s more dangerous for children to be secluded in homes where they may be spending more time with their abuser.” 

She adds that economic struggles can also compound abuse if a parent loses a job or the programs where they could place their children while they work are no longer open. Parents with children with special needs are especially affected. 

“These are factors COVID has brought and they play into the stress of adults and parents who are struggling,” she says.

Before businesses and schools began shutting down in response to COVID, 615 cases of child abuse were reported in a month in Collin County in 2020, according to CAC statistics. When things started closing in March, caseworkers began seeing 450 cases reported per month, she says. That’s a 27 percent decrease in the number of reports being made.

The biggest increase, she says, is being seen in the number of forensic interviews, sessions conducted by a child advocacy professional and live-streamed to a team made up of CPS workers, social workers, a physician, detective, therapist, and family advocate. That way a child doesn’t have to tell their story over and over.

Last year, 17% of abuse cases involved children ages 0-5, 19 percent included ages 13-17, 25 percent ages 6-12, and 39% 18+ including adults and parents, according to the Child Advocacy Center’s annual report. Most cases involving infants include neglect, malnourishment, or abuse stemming from substance abuse by parents, officials said. 

The Child Advocacy Center of Collin County also offers therapy to the non-offending parent and siblings.

During non-COVID times, a report of abuse is made in Texas every two minutes. Ninety-two percent of children know their abuser and 73 percent of sexually abused children won’t tell, according to reports. 

Ginden says the numbers of forensic interviews in October are expected to surpass that of the same time last year as schools open back up.

To help with awareness, the center is sending out flyers listing resources, things to watch for, and questions to ask for school teachers and counselors, church leaders, day care center directors, doctors, and coaches who spot and report the majority of reports of abuse.

“Everyone — we as individuals, too — must be more aware, check on kids, and if we suspect abuse, report it; you don’t need proof,” Ginden says. “Our job as adults is to protect all children — not just our own — all children we interact with or we know about.”

During ordinary times, when teachers would spend time with children in the classroom, they learn how they regularly behave. They can spot changes, whether they seem withdrawn or angry or if they have physical signs of abuse such as bruises or scars, child experts say.

But now most classes and church services are online due to the pandemic. Children are not playing on sports teams like they used to and they’re not seeing their friends or interacting with other parents as they usually do during play dates or sleepovers. Even doctors’ and dentists’ visits are virtual. 

Child experts recommend reaching out to children more during this pandemic, maybe conduct a virtual phone call. Ask them how they are feeling lately, set up driveway playdates where children can interact while still maintaining a healthy distance from each other. Teachers too need to find creative ways to interact with children to observe and listen and find out how their students are doing, officials say.

“Children don’t process like adults, they can’t vocalize, they don’t understand what is happening,” Ginden says. “With virtual meetings we cannot lay eyes on children like normal. More important than ever, we need to pay attention, ask questions of the children or the parents.”

If you have any suspicions of abuse, call the Texas Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or make an online report at TxAbuseHotline.org. 

The following is a list of other recommendations the Child Advocacy Center of Collin County says adults should do to spot and prevent child abuse:

Screening Questions for Remote Learners

  • How are things going at home?
  • I noticed that you’re being quiet today, tell me more about that. 
  • I noticed that you’re crying, can you tell me about that? 
  • How have you been feeling? 
  • Is there anything that’s been bothering you lately? 

Signs of Concern 

  • Significant changes occur in the student’s mood or behavior. 
  • Lack of attendance to virtual sessions or homework not being completed. 
  • Inability to get in contact with the family after repeated attempts to reach out. 
  • The child is in a dangerous environment or communicated to you that they feel unsafe. 

Additional Tips for Protecting Children  

  • Be a source of support 
  • Provide words of encouragement to students and caregivers during check-ins. 
  • Ask questions that engage: “How do you feel about learning from home rather than at school?” 
  • Be mindful of students in need of extra support:
    • Students with a history of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse and neglect, drug use, or suicidal ideation 
    • Students who are responsible for the care of other children or that have a family situation with limited support systems 
    • Students who need additional assistance due to physical, mental, behavioral, or medical disabilities or delays 

Handling a Disclosure of Abuse 

  • Believe the child.  
  • Remain calm. Don’t panic or overreact. 
  • Allow the child to talk.  
  • Ask open-ended questions: 
    • Tell me more about that? 
    • Who did it? 
    • Where did it happen? 
  • Reassure and support the child.  
  • Don’t confront the offender. 
  • Take action and report suspected abuse. 

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News,...