WENTZVILLE, Mo. — Last March, when the country shut down, The Child Center stayed open. To continue serving children facing domestic or sexual violence.
Child advocacy experts say one in four girls and one in six boys are victims of sexual abuse or assault before their 18th birthday.
"In the state of Missouri, hotline calls have dropped 60% once that pandemic hit," said Amy Robins, the Director of Forensic Services at The Child Center. "That was really concerning because we didn't suspect abuse was ending, there just wasn't a way for children to disclose that abuse."
As mandated reporters, teachers are some of the first to catch abuse cases.
But with a quick switch to virtual learning last year, reports dropped.
Not for The Child Center, though.
"We saw our numbers increase last year," Robins said.
In 2020, the agency had 926 forensic interviews almost evenly split between girls and boys.
This child advocacy center serves 14 different counties from St. Charles to Lincoln County. Yet, the abuse seen this past year has been similar.
"We've seen the cases increase in the severity of the extent of the abuse," Robins said.
The abuse has become more severe and so have the stressors.
"A lot of alcohol and substance abuse on the children and their parents, which leads to self-harm, suicidal thoughts and other dynamics that are more prevalent in cases than we see on average pre-pandemic," she adds.
The agency even added a new team member to help with child exploitation and human trafficking.
Stefanie Kaiser is the new Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Coordinator.
Kaiser retired from the St. Charles Police Department this past year. She's had multiple assignments throughout her law enforcement career that spanned almost 30 years. For the last 16 years, she served as a detective primarily focusing on crimes against children.
"Just in two months, there are multiple cases one way or the other, I am hearing it," Kaiser said. "During the course of the interview, what they are disclosing is that they are exploited or trafficked."
Kaiser is now responsible for developing and implementing a Multijurisdictional Taskforce to ensure that victims of child exploitation and child sex trafficking have a coordinated response in all 14 counties that the center serves.
HOW TO HELP:
The agency is urging the community to stay vigilant.
If you see something, say something.
Plus, donations would be beneficial.
Caseloads have increased dramatically over the year.
Robins says just this month, 122 children had forensic interviews, which means expenses are also up for this nonprofit. The agency makes sure the services are free to families.
"Funding is huge for us. Those dollars are so important to keep our services and doors open. All of the donations, no matter how big or small, is so important for us to provide those services," Robins tells 5 On Your Side.
The Child Center aims to help every child coming through its doors and with your help, it's a community effort to do so.
WAYS TO HELP:
TO REPORT AN ABUSE:
If you suspect child abuse, call the Missouri Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-392-3738 and for online reporting, click here.
THE CHILD CENTER FACTS:
- More than 900 children are interviewed for alleged abuse annually
- 9,000 forensic interviews have been done since 2000