CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department said child sex assaults have skyrocketed this year.
According to CMPD, there have been more reported sex assaults involving children so far in 2021 than there were in all of 2019 and 2020 combined.
"Kids are easily manipulated, and kids do believe and trust adults and they should be safe," Detective Jessica Hall of CMPD's Crimes Against Children Unit said. "It's traumatic, it's life-impacting."
Experts warned school closures due to COVID-19 would heighten the risk for abuse, and police said they believe the spike is because students returned to school and most likely confided in school officials like teachers or guidance counselors, on what was happening at home.
"Kids were removed last year due to COVID-19, they were removed from student activities, moved from school, removed from places where they have a trusted adult that they could tell what was going on at home," Hall said.
Now, a Charlotte child advocacy group is working to educate children to prevent abuse. Pat's Place Child Advocacy Center is giving children a voice.
"We want children to be educated about abuse and to have the vocabulary and knowledge to tell someone something is happening to them," the human trafficking outreach coordinator for Pat's Place Child Advocacy Center Shawna Pagano said.
Pat's Place just launched a program with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to teach students and adults on how to prevent, recognize, and respond to four types of child abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, neglect), bullying, cyberbullying and digital dangers. It's called MBF Child Safety Matters.
Fourteen schools in CMS signed on to incorporate the virtual course into the academic plan, including Myers Park Traditional, Barringer Academic Center, Matthews Elementary, Nations Ford Elementary and Tuckaseegee Elementary, among others.
"It is also age and developmental appropriate, so what a kindergartner is taught, is going to be very different than what a fifth-grader is taught," Pagano said.
Police said abusers are often not random strangers, but trusted adults. They also believe the real number of abuse cases is likely much higher since many are never reported.
Some warning signs to look out for if someone you care about has been affected by sexual violence are a change in behavior, risk-taking or inappropriate sexual behavior, or fear of going home or to a previously trusted place.
"Being withdrawn, sudden change in demeanor or behavior, if you notice grooming patterns if an adult or someone in the family is going above and beyond and buying gifts," Hall said. "There is nothing better than you can do than talk to your children and ask, teach your children about body safety, teach them where their private parts are."
If you believe a child has been impacted by sexual violence police ask that you report it by calling The Department of Social Services, Crime Stoppers, or by calling 911.