There are many ways to hurt a child.
The most common, according to the National Children’s Alliance and other groups that track child maltreatment, is through neglect.
Statistics for the Virgin Islands bear that out. In 2018, the territory, with a population under 100,000, recorded 154 cases of child neglect. There were also 58 cases of physical abuse and 22 cases of sexual abuse.
Those statistics are the most recent available from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, which documents a wide range of data for its annual Kids Count survey. The figures themselves come from the V.I. Department of Human Services, where they are compiled from reports received from police, medical professionals, social workers and other responsible community members, said Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin.
Such statistics usually loom large in April, because it is national Child Abuse Prevention Month. This year, like virtually every other aspect of life, the initiative is obscured by the deep shadow of COVID-19. The situation is particularly unfortunate, given widespread reports from national and territorial experts that the added stress of the health crisis is likely to increase incidences of child abuse.
But the sudden need to overhaul DHS operations to accommodate mandated social distancing “has kind of derailed everything we had planned,” Benjamin said, adding that Human Services is still hoping to use its Facebook page to “do something virtually” to observe the month.
Meanwhile, Benjamin shared some of the plans to address the root of the problem. Much involves replacing programs that worked in the past but have been abandoned in more recent times.
Particularly over the past year, DHS has seen a “breakdown” in the child protection system that the territory used to employ, she said.
“One piece we want to work on is the education piece,” she said.
For instance, a few years ago trainees at the Police Academy received instructions on child protection. Similarly, new employees at the Department of Education – from food service workers to teachers – learned about child abuse.
The department also sponsors parenting skills classes. At one point, they were conducted in house, Benjamin said. Later DHS partnered with various nonprofits to handle the classes, first Lutheran Social Services and then the Women’s Coalition and the Family Resource Center.
Benjamin said a new idea involves professionals acting as mentors, going into troubled homes and modeling good behavior.
The territory also needs more transitional homes for teens who are trapped in an unhealthy home environment and need to move to avoid neglect or abuse, she said.
Major congressional legislation setting aside federal money to improve prevention services has been passed and will be implemented in 2021, Benjamin said.
“The funds will be there to do it,” she said, but local jurisdictions have to prepare to use the money as intended. “There’s going to be a lot of capacity building … prevention is going to be the watchword.”
Dee Brown, CFVI president, also accentuated the positive.
Not only is this Child Abuse Prevention Month, she said, “We would also like to think of April as ‘Do Something Special With a Child Month.’ Read a book with a child, draw a picture, bake some cupcakes or cookies, do a puzzle …”
The foundation has partnered with Ready4K to provide help with early learning and parenting skills. To get “lots of exciting ideas,” Brown said to text the code CFVI to 70138.