Whose job is it to protect a child from abuse? The answer: All of us. That’s especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic as families face unemployment and isolation, fear and anxiety. School, daycare and camps—the daily touchstone for many kids—have been put on hold. More than ever, we need to look out for children in our communities.
At the start of the pandemic, calls to the KIDS Center—a nonprofit serving Central Oregon since 1994 and dedicated to the prevention, evaluation and treatment of child abuse—were down. “It was very concerning,” said Gabrielle Allender, KIDS Center director of client programs and prevention. “We know there is increased risk of child abuse due to increased stressors on families, and there is decreased interaction with mandated reporters.”
Community members can sign up for trainings through the KIDS Center, with many classes now offered online. Last year, nearly 1,000 people participated in prevention and education programs on topics like recognizing the signs of abuse, internet safety, talking to children about body safety and sexual abuse, and parenting education. “We encourage all adults to attend a training,” Allender said. “People who have kids, people who don’t have kids—the hairdresser who sees kids walking down the street. It’s crucial to learn how to speak up and save a child.”
When a child is referred to the KIDS Center, the center offers a safe environment for abuse evaluation. Working in collaboration with law enforcement and the Department of Human Services, staff provide a half-day evaluation that includes a child-friendly forensic interview, a medical exam and next-steps planning for the family. A KIDS Center family advocate is also assigned, helping to connect families with community partners to secure food, shelter and resources when needed. KIDS Center offers ongoing mental health services for children and families as they begin down a path of healing, and KIDS Center representatives appear in court to advocate for victims if necessary.
During the pandemic, KIDS Center moved much of its work to the virtual world, including online trainings and counseling, but the center remains open for in-person evaluations. KIDS Center Executive Director Gil Levy said, “Twenty-six years ago, the KIDS Center was created by this community. They recognized the need and literally built the building,” Levy said. “We’ll continue to identify the gaps, sustain success and move forward.”