CHICAGO (CBS) — Crimes against children are down significantly since schools closed for the coronavirus pandemic.

But that is not necessarily such good news.

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The Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center said it’s not actually that abuse is down, but that it’s not being reported. And experts worry the stay-at-home order will only increase the danger for some kids.

CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey dug into the drop Tuesday.

Experts say child abuse thrives in isolation and stressful situations, and if often perpetrated by family members – so the stay-at-home order is a perfect storm of those factors.

And they’re worried kids aren’t getting the help they need.

At the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, the playground is abandoned, and most of the toys haven’t been played with in weeks. And the four state-of-the-art interview rooms are empty.

Those rooms are where forensic interviewer Veronica Pierce normally records interviews with children that detectives and states attorneys can watch through one-way glass.

“We’re just gathering factual information about any allegations of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or witness to crimes,” Pierce said.

The Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center is considered essential and *open for business. But referrals have dropped dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic.

“It definitely has not stopped,” Pierce said. “It just isn’t being reported.”

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Executive Director Char Rivette says closing schools has accelerated the problem.

“Without those safety nets; those safe havens such as teachers and counselors after-school mentors that these kids were having contact with on a regular basis,” Rivette said.

The drop in cases is startling.

In April of last year, the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center conducted 225 forensic interviews with kids.

This April, they’ve had just 67.

The team has configured socially distant interview rooms. They’re spacing out family visits.

And used telehealth options for some patients.
“As long as were getting the calls, we’re going to continue to be here,” Pierce said.

But Pierce and Rivette say that until the stay-at-home order is lifted, friends and family need to go out of their way to check on kids.

“Either by phone or by Zoom and ask questions: how are you doing? Do you feel safe?” Rivette said.

Unfortunately, all of this is coming at a time when national data was showing a recent increase in child sexual abuse cases.

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These advocates are really stressing that friends, family and loved ones go out of their way to check in.

Megan Hickey