Greenbier County CYAC combats new challenges in fight against child abuse during COVID-19 pandemic

By Bobby Bordelon

Although many children in Greenbrier County are currently preparing to return to school, their absence from school and a number of public places has reduced the number of eyes protecting them from abuse. At the Child and Youth Advocacy Center (CYAC) in downtown Lewisburg, the pandemic has changed how the organization functions, both in the type of cases they investigate and how they investigate them.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about human trafficking and the people following kids in Walmart – all very legitimate concerns – but the overwhelming majority of child abuse, especially sexual abuse, comes from someone in the home or in the family,” explained Staci Russell-Teaney, executive director of the CYAC. “So we haven’t seen a change as far as the dynamics of the abuse we’re seeing, but what we are seeing is CPS and DHHR accepting a lot more referrals for investigation.”

CYAC headquarters in downtown Lewisburg.

The purpose of CYAC is to streamline and minimize the involvement of children in the process of investigating abuse cases. Before the CYAC’s involvement, when a child disclosed abuse to someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher, they would often have to tell this same story to multiple people, who would then build a case based on their respective interview. This sometimes led to cases where the child could have to retell their story over a dozen times, for police, social workers, nurses, doctors, a forensic nurse or doctor, child protection investigators, lawyers, counselors, and more, each of which handles a different aspect of a child abuse case.

In April, shortly after the schools closed due to COVID-19 and the state-wide lockdown began, the number of reports to state agencies dropped from approximately 300 a day to 100. This dramatic drop has led to a change in how cases are handled.

One of the things [Child Protective Services and the Department of Health and Human Resources] did when they saw that decrease in the number of cases being called in, was that they lowered their threshold for what referrals they would accept,” Russell-Teaney explained. “ … They need to have enough information on how to find the family, names, address, and as much detail about what concerns you about the child as possible. Any marks that you saw, any statements the child made, you still want to be as detailed as you can to give the investigators as much information as possible.”

Local investigation can result in a forensic interview, a recorded interview that can be submitted into court as evidence, keeping a child victim of abuse from having to testify multiple times before a case comes to trial. Specially trained interviewers take care to ask questions in a nonleading way, posing open ended questions, or asking to “tell me more” about specific things the child said.

The forensic interview process, and the CYAC at large, has been affected by COVID-19 precautions. Although the necessity video recording prevents the interview from taking place outside, the interview room has been cleaned, the space between interviewer and interviewee increased, “kid-friendly” masks added, and toys that can’t be properly sanitized removed. In addition, less information from reports to state agencies means the interviewers have to ask very different questions.

Kids come to us with a lot less information, we don’t really know what we’re looking for when they come in for their forensic interviews because that referral doesn’t have the same level of information that we’re used to. But that gets them in front of us and gives us the ability to screen and see if there’s anything worrisome going on. … It’s a different kind of interview. It can, [make things more complicated], depending on the age of the child, especially with your little ones, it can be a lot more difficult, but the older ones, they process information and, developmentally, are much more capable of doing a broad interview like that.”

The continuation of CYAC services is just one link in the chain of child protection in Greenbrier County – shortly after quarantine began, the CYAC team was split into isolated teams, with one interviewer and advocate per team, to prevent a possible exposure from closing the entire organization. But with so many children outside of the educational system that serves as a one of these safety nets, the role of friends, family, and neighbors has increased.

People are afraid a lot of times of making that step and making a report,” Russell-Teaney said. “They don’t want to be wrong. But I think the thing to remember is these are kids and they are voiceless. especially the really young ones. It’s better to have it investigated and looked at and be wrong than to have a child experiencing abuse at home and no one is speaking up for them.”

Russell-Teaney also highlighted the role of teachers in this process one consequence of students being out of school. A number of teachers reached out to the CYAC, worried for particular students.

At the beginning [of the stay-at-home orders] we had teachers calling in [saying] ‘I have this kid I have been so worried about and now they’re at home and I don’t know what to do,’” Russell-Teaney explained. “It was very traumatic for them. It was general concern – ‘I’ve always been concerned about this kid and now they’re at home and I don’t have access to them and how do I deal with that?’ A lot of teachers were still calling [at the end of the school year], my kid’s teachers called us a couple of times just checking in, I just recommended doing that, taking notes about what happened or what was said or overheard in the background that concerned them. If there was anything they thought was actionable, [they should] call it in. We always encourage teachers, or anyone really, to call us if they think ‘I have this thing and I don’t know if it means abuse, I don’t know if I should call somebody.’ Call our advocates, we’re more than happy to talk on the phone with [anyone] and let them know ‘yes, that’s something that’s concerning, you should call this phone number’ or ‘maybe watch them a little longer.’”

Ultimately keeping children safe isn’t just the responsibility of teachers or family – it’s the responsibility of the entire community. If you see something that looks suspect, Russell-Teaney asks you reach out to West Virginia’s abuse hotline – 800-352-6513.

I just want to emphasize that it really is everybody’s duty to look out for kids,” Russell-Teaney said. “If you have kids you live next door to, kids that you see in the neighbor, see at church, … keep your eye on them and know the phone number to make a report of abuse.”