More than 600 child abuse charges were filed in West Virginia last year, and 94% of alleged offenders were someone the child knew. That’s according to a report by the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network.
West Virginia’s 21 advocacy centers provide services in 44 of the state’s 55 counties. The network’s CEO Kate Flack said in 2021, centers saw more than 4,000 kids, a 40% increase over the last five years.
But due to school closures and other stay-at-home measures in the pandemic, Flack pointed out the numbers don’t paint a full picture of the problem.
“So, we know that this is a conservative estimate of the number of kids who are actually experiencing abuse,” said Flack, “but it’s still an increase from our numbers the previous year.”
According to the Just for Kids Child Advocacy Center, one in 10 West Virginia kids will be a victim of sexual abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the costs of child maltreatment over a lifetime nationwide stretch into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
To report a suspected case of child abuse, call the “Childhelp” National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-352-6513, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The state has made some efforts to protect kids, including amending a 2018 law that shrinks the amount of time required to report suspected abuse from 48 hours to 24 hours. And in 2015, state lawmakers passed “Erin Merryn’s Law.”
Flack said it requires that public schools have programs to teach students age-appropriate ways to recognize sexual abuse and report it to a trusted adult, and educate teachers on how to handle suspected abuse cases.
“How can you help spot abuse?” said Flack. “What are signs and symptoms of abuse? How can you respond in a way that is affirming to a child, and helps them, and how to report.”
Flack said she hopes the state can increase collaboration between child protective services, law enforcement and prosecution officials, and mental health and medical providers, to better help kids heal from their trauma.
“The goal is to have a child advocacy center officially serving every county,” said Flack. “And so that means that every county, with all of the different multidisciplinary team members, all of those team members are working together to coordinate cases.”
The report says 202 individuals were convicted for crimes against West Virginia children last year.