By Judge Allegra Walker
In the wake of a global pandemic, schools across the city are scurrying to find ways to keep children safe at home and provide quality academic instruction while hesitantly embracing our new normal and waiting on what’s believed to be the worst health crisis since the Spanish flu 100 years ago.
When COVID-19 reared its ugly head in March, little did we know that this silent killer would not only have a heavy health, economic and academic impact on our community, but it also would profoundly impact children who come from environments already struggling with domestic and sexual violence. A 2017 study conducted by the YWCA found that one in four girls and one in six boys will be a victim of sexual abuse by the age of 18. Similarly, the National Network to End Domestic Violence has reported that one in 15 girls and boys are exposed to domestic violence within the home, and 90% of those children witness domestic violence in the home.
Research further shows the children who’ve witnessed or experienced domestic and sexual violence suffer in different ways. For example, they tend to show signs of anxiety, often worrying about their safety; they have difficulty concentrating on things like academics, show increased amounts of aggression, often struggle with experiencing a good night’s sleep, and have separation anxiety from their parent, to name a few. Now that COVID-19 has managed to keep us somewhat confined to our homes, issues of domestic and sexual violence with respect to children have been further complicated as many households are also experiencing joblessness, further isolation, homelessness, mental and physical challenges, separation from resources and ultimately separation from schools.
The role that schools play in the life of children who are victims of violence is of critical importance. Schools often serve as a haven for children as they have systems in place to protect and/or help children who are struggling at home. For example, schools are equipped to provide children with a hot breakfast and lunch the minute a child walks through the door. Additionally, a weekend care package is also an option for many children who might not receive a meal over the weekend. In the event a child is feeling isolated, schools serve as an opportunity for that child to interact with teachers and other children. This level of interaction is also useful to aid a child in making a report of abuse to school officials or even to other children. Counselors are also located within the schools to take referrals from teachers who receive reports of abuse, behavioral changes or observe injuries. These resources, under typical circumstances, play a key role in keeping children safe.
As a community, this pandemic will require us to have a higher sense of social connectedness to one another in order for us to ensure that our most vulnerable population of children remains safe until we begin to experience some sense of normalcy; it will require leaders in the community to assess the readiness of social service programs, making sure that they are flexible and capable of handling the overload of work, stress and stretched resources that COVID-19 has placed upon us all. It will require community agencies to strengthen partnerships already located in the community, making sure that advanced training, new information and resources are being updated and disseminated to the most vulnerable. And, it will require the community as a whole to improve methods of caring for children who are at home, experiencing unprecedented amounts of stress and may not feel safe by making periodic phone calls, texting, video chats or an occasional porch visit.
Domestic and sexual violence is rooted in power and control. It permits one to exert his or her power over a victim through physical, sexual, emotional, financial abuse and isolation. So, as the pandemic grows, so will the impact on our children who are exposed to domestic and sexual violence. Along with fighting educational gaps, hunger, homelessness, mental health and behavioral issues, our schools have been forced to close their doors and teach and nurture kids virtually. It’s now time for the community to pay attention to the silent cries of victims of domestic and sexual abuse and let the healing.
Judge Allegra Walker currently sits as a domestic violence Judge in General Sessions Court, Division IV in Davidson County and has served the Davidson Community since 2001.