KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nurses at Children's Mercy Hospital have noticed that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, fewer sexual abuse victims are coming in for care.
"We can attribute some of that, just when we look at national trends, to the fact that kids aren't coming in contact with mandated reporters — teachers, therapists, people they typically see in person and disclose abuse to," said Heidi Olson, manager of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program at the hospital.
Children are at home and in front of screens even more, increasing the chances that they will come into contact with a predator.
"We try to ask specific questions so that we can correlate that kids are being exploited online," Olson said. "We track if they met their perpetrator online, so there are different ways we're gathering this data."
Children's Mercy has been tracking this data for the last two years.
The hospital has also found that children are abusing other children, likely due to their exposure to pornography and predators online.
From these conversations with kids, nurses realize there are many more who may not feel safe telling an adult.
"We know that by looking at research and data that children typically don't lie about sexual abuse, so when a child discloses there's been some type of abuse, harm or exploitation, that it's a big deal," Olson said.
Anyone can report child sexual abuse and exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Children's Mercy also is working with the Stop Trafficking Project and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who say COVID-19 has opened the door even wider for predators to prey on children.
Russ Tuttle, founder of the Stop Trafficking Project, is working to better track these trends.
"Where we're at now is, eight days in the grooming process before a kid is now willing to meet a stranger in person they first met online and/or become active in sending 'hot pics' or 'nudes' to people asking for them," Tuttle said.
Typically, a child's contact with a predator starts with an innocent connection through a friend or a friend of a friend. Then the child starts talking to someone they may not know through a gaming system or an app.
Tuttle said COVID-19 has intensified the insecurities of kids who were already online, kids who feel isolated or depressed or those thinking about suicide.
And that's what predators are looking for.
Tuttle said parents can't stop at putting a blocker on their child's phone because they will find a way around it. He urges parents to get involved and know every password on the device, which he assures is not invading their privacy.
"I promise you there's a pervert, predator or pimp out there looking to exploit that vulnerability and they will invade that privacy," Tuttle said.
Being a landing spot for children when they experience trauma, effects of COVID-19 included, can help prevent sexual exploitation.
"The sooner we can end the vulnerability in a child before the pattern leads to the next vulnerability that can lead to some form of exploitation is really critically important," Tuttle said.
The Stop Trafficking Project has resources on its website, including how to talk to your kids about sex trafficking, exploitation and pornography.