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WASHINGTON – Christina J. Allen has never seen so many families fleeing domestic violence. Allen, executive director of the FamilyTime Crisis and Counseling Center in Humble, Texas, said many women and children seeking help during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic had to be turned away because there simply weren’t enough beds to go around at the shelter.
Allen is among many domestic abuse relief workers keeping a close eye on a growing debate in Congress over whether to beef up child abuse prevention measures, including by providing $270 million to local shelters like hers.
The proposal passed by the House in March and up for debate in the Senate aims to shield millions of children from violence as families hit hard by joblessness and other pandemic-driven stresses are seeing a surge in abuse cases.
The proposed legislation seeks to provide more education about child abuse and how to detect it, fund community programs that address substance abuse disorders, and support tribal and immigrant communities, which are disproportionately vulnerable to poverty.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina are working to get the bill passed after the Senate declined last year to advance the measure.
“It’s essential that we acknowledge and understand the scope of child abuse and neglect during and after the pandemic and do everything we can to better protect our nation’s children. There is no greater responsibility we have to the next generation than keeping them safe,” Burr said in a statement.
Murray urged senators to support the bill. “This bipartisan bill is a critical and necessary step in our effort to keep every child safe and strengthen our child protective services system," she said in a statement.
This bill was advanced unanimously Thursday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee.
"Every child deserves to live in a safe, secure, and stable environment. That’s not controversial. That’s not partisan," Murray said during the hearing.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she had not supported the legislation because it did not include support for tribal communities.
"Having the political will to be able to provide them with the resources to stop this cycle of trauma and abuse is what we must do," Murkowski said during the meeting.
Child abuse cases rise in pandemic
Experts said the coronavirus pandemic left more families at home together for long periods at a time of economic loss and overall anxiety, creating a breeding ground for child abuse across the nation. Many children who once found an escape from abusive caretakers at schools and youth programs were cut off from those safe spaces. Social pressure, poverty and mental health struggles are all factors that can drive child abuse.
During the pandemic, hospitals saw a decline in child-abuse-related emergency room visits but an increase in child-abuse-related injuries, including head trauma, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Calls reporting abuse to the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, a nonprofit organization based in Arizona dedicated to preventing and treating abuse, grew last year by nearly 14%. At one point, children began texting the hotline begging for help.
“We saw kids trapped at home with abusers,” said Daphne Young, chief communications officer at Childhelp.
Young said that once children return to school and school officials once again begin investigating bruises and scars and hear stories of what happened during quarantine, “we may see another pandemic: a pandemic of abuse.”
Domestic abuse providers said a crucial component of the legislation is money to support overwhelmed community providers.
Denise Duval, founder of Child Therapy Chicago, a therapy center to help children and families with difficult life situations, said the measure could help pay for therapy centers that would not otherwise be able to care for families in need. Duval said fewer families of color sought treatment at her private practice last year because of the pandemic.
Allen, of the FamilyTime Crisis and Counseling Center, said faith-based community programs could help families identify child abuse, as well as how to prevent and treat it.
“We know what comes from the pulpit or the altar carries a lot of weight in this country. ... That's a trusted source,” Allen said. “The best solution is for us to prevent it before it happens, not continue to be in this reactive mode where what we're doing is responding and reacting after the abuse has taken place.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Child abuse crisis: Senate debates proposed law to protect children