Vernon’s Oak Child and Youth Advocacy Centre saw a sharp rise in reported cases of child abuse or sexual assault following periods of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)

‘We have a responsibility to intervene’: Pandemic worsens child abuse in Okanagan

The Oak Child and Youth Advocacy Centre has seen spikes in abuse cases following pandemic-induced school closures

  • Mar. 26, 2021 12:00 a.m.

For Brooke McLardy, the silence was deafening.

It was March 2020 and the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic. The world retreated; schools were closed, as were most after-school organizations.

The folks at Archway Society for Domestic Peace, who operate Vernon’s Oak Child and Youth Advocacy Centre, usually field one or two cases of child abuse per day, but suddenly the phones went quiet.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but complete silence is usually a bad sign, rather than indicating a drop-off in domestic violence. Social workers like McLardy take it as a sign that cases simply aren’t being reported.

That’s because, while data on child abuse during the pandemic is unrefined given the short time frame, there are indications that children and youth are most likely to seek help from a teacher or counsellor or at an after-school program.

“It was a complete drop-off in reports, and a silence, and it’s really very frightening,” said McLardy. She described the period of school closures from last March to June as “frantic.”

Sure enough, when students and teachers haltingly returned to classrooms, reality emerged.

“What we saw when schools reopened in June and some of the community activities started to open is a flood of reports,” McLardy said. “And that really hasn’t slowed down.”

READ MORE: Crime down in Vernon, domestic violence on the rise: RCMP report

The fact that the Oak Centre was seeing a child every day or second day before the pandemic is something she feels locals would find more disturbing if it were more visible.

“One of the things we know from the research that’s been done in the past is that one in three children will experience some form of abuse,” she said. “That’s massive … and I think because it’s very hidden people don’t always know the depth of the issue that we have in our community. But it’s here.”

Oak Centre’s cases have been rising each year. The centre’s purpose is to handle these cases carefully, avoiding any unnecessary trauma added to the child or family as they navigate the justice system and move onto recovery.

The centre was established six years ago as one of the first establishments in the province to adopt a more innovative child and youth advocacy model, designed to be a calm and welcoming environment for youth to testify about their own abuse or as a witness to domestic crimes.

Before Oak Centre, children would be interviewed at the local RCMP detachment, ushered through a small lobby bustling with uniformed officers and whoever else happened to be there for a crime-related matter. The interviewing officer, limited in time and resources, isn’t always trained in dealing with child trauma, McLardy said.

“You’ve got offenders and complainants and all kinds of hubbub going on,” she added.

Whereas at Oak Centre, families enter the space during a time block that’s been dedicated to their visit. Children and youth sit in a comfortably furnished, pastel room. All relevant parties are looped into a single professionally conducted interview — plain-clothed police officers, social workers, etc. — so that the child doesn’t have to recount their story of abuse multiple times.

Families aren’t pushed out the door after the interview; staff help the child and caregiver navigate the next steps with regular check-ins. Caregivers are included in the support, which can continue well after the interview.

Since Oak Centre emerged in Vernon the improved model has cropped up everywhere in B.C.

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The pandemic has worsened the issues of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, and those on the ground say it’s a more dramatic rise than the statistics at hand convey. The Vernon North Okanagan RCMP’s 2020 fourth-quarter crime stats report indicates a rise in domestic violence from 20 to 29 cases over the same time in 2019, but Archway’s co-executive director of administration Sherry Demetrick said that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“(Staff) said it felt like way more,” she said. “I think that speaks to the fact that cases, when they come in, are more serious and difficult and complicated.”

Certain aspects of the pandemic have put constraints on children and youths’ ability to report abuse, as well as for adults experiencing domestic violence.

“You’re in a domestic violence situation and you want to go live in a communal transition house during a pandemic? Probably not,” said Demetrick. “The reticence to come live in a communal environment, which is understandable, has been a barrier for sure.”

As stop-the-spread restrictions continue to contort social dynamics, McLardy says people will in turn need to reshape their standards for stepping in to assist someone out of an abusive environment.

“We have a responsibility as citizens and as community members to intervene when we think a child is unsafe,” she said.

“I think it’s hard as a community member, as a neighbour, as a friend of a family to want to intervene, but we have to. That’s our job as community members.”

For advice on how to re-calibrate our intuitions around when it’s time to intervene, McLardy borrows from widely used mental health messaging.

“If you have just a niggling concern about someone, reach out and ask how they are. Ask parents how they’re doing, how are they coping in this really difficult time. Are there any supports that can be lent to help bolster them? We need to get involved, we need to look at our neighbours and think, ‘I’m a part of their safety net.'”

And as it’s been widely reported, mental health, in general, has become a concurrent crisis to COVID-19.

“The mental health piece is … it’s out of this world. I haven’t seen anything like this in my work before,” McLardy said.

Overcoming the distance that’s been inserted between community members is the most important action people can take to help the situation during COVID, McLardy said. A report made from someone on a child’s periphery could open the door for the child to enter the rehabilitative system.

“We are very lucky to live in this community; there are a ton of resources,” McLardy said. “It’s getting people connected to them.”

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Brendan Shykora

Reporter, Vernon Morning Star

Email me at Brendan.Shykora@vernonmorningstar.com

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