MERCER COUNTY, W. Va. (WVVA) - The COVID-19 pandemic is posing many challenges. For child advocacy centers, it has peeled away an important layer of protection to help identify child abuse and neglect.
School is more than a place of learning. It's also where there are many eyes and ears on the lookout for the signs of abuse and neglect among the students.
"Classroom teachers, youth leaders, sports coaches, club facilitators..." Beth Sizemore, Child Protect Mercer County Program Director, said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking these watchful eyes off kids due to virtual learning, the cancellation of extracurricular activities and greatly diminished face-to-face contact between students and their educators.
"There is that possibility that there are issues going unnoticed, and that definitely does impact the timeliness of notification that there is some sort of child abuse or neglect issue going on," Sgt. Steve Sommers, with the Mercer County Sheriff's Office, said.
It's why Child Protect in Mercer County said it's vital for them to stay open during the pandemic.
"If it wasn't for the ladies at Child Protect... the interviewers, the counselors, everybody involved. We would not be able to successfully investigate as many cases as we do," Sgt. Sommers said.
But Sizemore and Sgt. Sommers said the impact of the pandemic is two-fold: one reduces the chances of exposing abuse and neglect, the other increases the factors that can fuel all forms of child abuse.
"Unemployment, economic hardship, sickness, all those kinds of stressors in families do increase the incidents of child abuse," Sizemore said.
Sizemore said when it comes to fighting abuse and neglect, the community can step in during the pandemic to help.
"If you do see something, or if you do notice that the child that lives next door to you... you haven't seen them in awhile or the way they're behaving has changed, I think it is all of our responsibility to report these things," Sizemore said.
In 2020, child advocacy centers across West Virginia reported seeing a 34% jump in the number of children they've served since 2015. In Mercer County, Child Protect is reporting 182 new children served in 2020.