ChildSafe leaders believe the well-being of children should be a top priority in San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For the second consecutive year, ChildSafe has observed a significant shift in the trends of child abuse, as sexual abuse cases now outnumber physical abuse cases. This is a development that has not been seen in the past 25 years, and it underscores the urgent need for the community to collectively understand the prevalence of the issue and act.

The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) reported Bexar County had more confirmed victims of child sexual abuse, 579, compared to 501 victims of physical abuse in 2021. This same trend continued in 2022, with 620 child sexual abuse confirmations compared to 539 physical abuse confirmations. Data also shows that 1 in 10 children will become sexual abuse victims before their 18th birthday. However, only 10 percent of these victims will disclose the abuse, and if they do, it typically takes them two or more years to report it. 

DFPS also reported that 19 children in Bexar County died in 2022 because of abuse and neglect. Among these cases, more than half of the victims were under two years old, and 14 were under four years old. Additionally, 16 of the 19 children who died were Hispanic, Black, or of mixed race, highlighting the disproportionate access white families have to child abuse protective factors like education, stable housing, and health care. Poverty increases the risk of child abuse as it causes family stress, making children in low socioeconomic status families five times more likely to experience abuse.

The increase in confirmed sexual abuse outcries in 2021 and 2022 is believed to be the result of the pandemic, as children spent more time at home due to remote learning, quarantine, and social distancing measures. These children became more vulnerable to abuse by their caregivers, other adults, and in most instances, other youth. Additionally, the absence of in-person schooling meant that teachers, who are primary reporters of abuse, were not able to directly observe children. Data indicate juveniles account for more than one-third of those known to police to have committed sex offenses against minors. In fact, the peak age for perpetrating sexual offenses against young children is ages 12-14.

Add online exploitation to the mix, and keeping our children safe is more difficult than ever. New data from The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has revealed a shocking surge in online sexual exploitation of 7-10-year-olds in 2021, with a three times increase compared to previous years. This alarming increase was part of a larger trend of child sexual abuse images that IWF reviewed. In fact, the number of such images reviewed in 2021 exceeded the combined total of the previous 15 years, setting a disturbing record.

It is essential to address the underlying factors that contribute to these tragic incidents and take proactive measures to ensure every child has a safe and nurturing environment to grow and thrive. The best defense against child abuse, child sexual abuse, and those who harm children is a trained and informed community.

ChildSafe’s prevention and education team empower community members by addressing the low awareness of the prevalence, consequences, and circumstances of abuse, limited knowledge of steps and actions to protect children, and reluctance to act in response to suspicions of abuse. In educating community members, we remove the shame and stigma of abuse and advise residents on how to recognize and report abuse, thereby minimizing the damage that can manifest in victims such as mental health issues, PTSD, or criminality. Early recognition leads to earlier reporting and critical referrals to mental health and protective and therapeutic services that move children and families forward, creating better long-term outcomes for their mental health and well-being.

The need for trauma-informed care is at an all-time high at ChildSafe. Our organization not only offers trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and support services, but we also collaborate with agencies such as the San Antonio Police Department, Bexar County Sheriff’s Department, Children’s Hospital of San Antonio/Center for Miracles, Child Protective Services, and the Bexar County’s District Attorney’s office to facilitate investigations on child abuse and neglect as well as commercial sex trafficking of youth. Together, we provide a holistic approach to help young victims heal and bring perpetrators to justice.

It is imperative that we all make the well-being of children a top priority and accept our shared responsibility to safeguard them from neglect and abuse. We can contribute to this cause by familiarizing ourselves with the signs of abuse and neglect, notifying authorities of any suspected cases, assisting organizations that work with vulnerable children, volunteering with youth groups, or offering support to those who might be encountering difficulties. Additionally, as a community, we must provide support for families in low socioeconomic conditions, offer accessible positive parenting programs and early childhood care and enrichment. By working together, we can create a safer and more supportive San Antonio where all children are safe and nurtured.  

Kim Abernethy is the president and CEO of ChildSafe.

Randy McGibeny is ChildSafe's chief operating officer.