In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Molly Horn, a public relations and marketing coordinator at Alliance for Children, explains how to keep kids safe from abuse during the holidays.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Alexis Allison: As we approach the winter holidays, and the holidays during a pandemic, how can we think about child safety?
Molly Horn: One of the things that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, but that we feel is important is that over 90% of child abuse victims are abused by someone they know. This can often be a friend of the family, a family member, or someone who has close contact with our kids.
Oftentimes, as adults, we have implicit trust of our relatives and our close friends, but as parents and caregivers, we have to be vigilant and set boundaries, regardless of our relationships, with the people around us. One of the things that we think is important for caregivers and parents to know is to avoid situations where your child is isolated with an adult.
We also need to look out for younger children being kept with older siblings or older people in the family or friends who might have some sense of power over that child. Children can be perpetrators of abuse as well. Keeping activities in a communal setting or keeping lots of people around when we have kids in this situation can prevent many types of acute abuse from occurring.
We also suggest that you look out for red flags, such as someone trying to isolate a child, someone breaking physical boundaries with a child. That could be like a tickle fight: An adult says that they want to tickle a little child but the child is not comfortable with it. It could be an adult who wants to take a child for a car ride. It could be anything where that adult is trying to isolate themselves with just one child. If you see red flags like that, please take action to keep your child safe.
Allison: What does taking action look like?
Horn: If you see an adult taking a child into a room by themselves, or if you see an adult who wants to take a child on a car ride, or if you see any kind of a situation that could be unsafe, put a stop to it right then. Step in. Say something. Say something to that child to make sure that they’re OK. Say something to the adult to let them know that you’re not OK with the situation occurring, and that you would prefer another adult or other people to be around that situation.
If you do suspect that abuse is occurring, we highly encourage you to call law enforcement or to call the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services hotline, which is 1-800-252-5400. Every adult in Texas is a mandated reporter. That means that any time that you see something, say something. We depend on people from the community to make reports of child abuse so that we can keep kids safe.
Allison: Molly, I want to return to something that you said at the beginning of our conversation. I’m wondering why it’s so much more common for people who know the child to be the abuser of the child. I think when I grew up, I heard the message of ‘stranger danger.’ So what’s happening here?
Horn: I think a lot of us were taught the myth of ‘stranger danger’ when we were young. We were told to watch out for the guy in the van who’s trying to give kids candy. But as we see in child abuse prevention, that’s not what happens. Sure, there are strangers who are bad guys out there. But most of what we see is people who have close contact with our kids — somebody who’s around them in an isolated situation and has that opportunity to take advantage. We also see a lot of perpetrators of abuse build a relationship of trust with that caregiver before they begin to abuse the child. It may be someone who is close to the family and has been trusted by the family for months or even years. That’s why it’s so important that, as parents and caregivers, we remain vigilant in looking out for any situation in which a child might be unsafe.
Allison: One of the recommendations you provided is to keep activities in a communal setting. I project that that has been more difficult during the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected child safety?
Horn: Unfortunately, in the business that we’re in, we have seen an increase in reports of child abuse after the pandemic. We know that the first four weeks of the pandemic were incredibly dangerous for kids, because there were children who were kept alone, isolated in a situation with their abusers.
We have seen reports of abuse go up now that life has started returning to normal. Kids are back in school. We have seen an increase in reports of abuse from all of those children who were kept in unsafe situations, not by their own choice, not really by anyone’s choice, it was just the direction that the world headed in because of the pandemic, those kids were kept isolated. Now, the reports of abuse are coming out, so we have seen an increase. In March, April and May of this year, we saw our highest numbers ever of child abuse reports in the 30 years we’ve been in business.
Allison: Can you untangle why, now, there would be such a high increase in those reports?
Horn: It’s because more adults are speaking up and more kids are speaking up. While we wish that abuse weren’t happening at all — we wish that it could just be erased — that’s not the reality. The reality is that kids are being abused, and thankfully they are speaking up. They are going back to school, they’re going back to their friends, they’re going back to their sports teams, and they are talking about what’s happened to them. We’ve seen a high uptick in reports because these kids are able to talk about what’s happened to them.
Allison: I’m wondering what tips you would give people who work with kids or who have kids in creating space for a dialogue about abuse with those kids.
Horn: The best thing you can do is be a good listener.
We also recommend that parents or caregivers or anyone who spends time with children should educate themselves on the symptoms of abuse. That’s something you can find on our website, allianceforchildren.org. Or you can look at Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas. Both of these websites offer lists and information on what to recognize as signs and symptoms of abuse and what you can do if you suspect that abuse has happened.
We don’t want to put pressure on kids. We don’t want to pressure them to feel like they have to say something if they’re not comfortable saying something. But we want to create that opening so that, if a child is being abused, they feel safe in talking to us about it.
So, be a good listener, give that space to a child, whether it’s your own child or a friend or anyone, any child that you come in contact with, make sure that they know that you’re a trusted adult and that they can talk to you if they have any concerns.
Allison: Could you give us an example of a sign or symptom of abuse?
Horn: One of the things we sometimes see is a regression in behavior. So, for example, a child who was potty trained is now going back to peeing in their pants, or a child who was never a bed wetter, suddenly becomes a bed wetter. One of the things that we see most often is those types of changes in behavior where something that was never a problem before now suddenly becomes a problem. That could be something like the child suddenly developing a temper. They become angry, and they are expressing that anger in ways that you hadn’t seen before.
We also sometimes see kids who become depressed, and that’s a natural consequence of a child who’s been abused. If you are around a child and you notice that they’re developing depression or symptoms like that, again, make that space and let that child know that you’re a safe adult that they can talk to.
Allison: Thank you and for people who are in Tarrant County, can you share a little bit more about Alliance for Children and what role the organization plays in protecting children?
Horn: Alliance for Children is the children’s advocacy center of Tarrant County. We, like hundreds of other organizations across the country, provide a space for children to tell what has happened to them and then for an investigation to take place and then for healing to take place after that.
Prior to children’s advocacy centers being developed, kids were often re-traumatized because they were having to talk about their abuse over and over and over again. The model of the children’s advocacy center really makes it possible for that child to have to talk about their abuse as few times as possible and to do so in a safe space with trusted adults who are not going to do anything to re-traumatize that child.
Allison: Thank you, Molly. As we approach the holidays and close out 2021, is there anything else you’d like to share about child safety?
Horn: These are unrelated to child abuse, but, if you have guns in your home, please be sure that they are in a locked place that the child does not have access to them. We know, unfortunately, so many tragedies happen because the parent or caregiver thought that their guns were in a safe place, but the child was still able to get access to them. Please make sure that there is no access for children to get a hold of any firearms.
And, lastly, I would just like to mention that the holidays also mean holiday parties, but, adults, if you have young children around, please be responsible. Please don’t drink and drive, and do not be incapacitated when caring for your kids.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.