The month of April has been designated Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States since 1983. I wrote an article in 2011 about how child abuse rose during the recession. I am afraid, that we are again living in a time, in which child abuse and domestic violence are escalating.
Reports are frightening. “After a harrowing week in which multiple children were admitted to the Cook Hospital for abuse, medical director Jamye Coffman sounded the alarm, telling the world child abuse rates would likely increase due to the coronavirus lockdown. Two children, both under the age of four, died in the hospital because of abuse-related injuries. Those two children were part of a group of seven children under age four who had all been admitted to the hospital for abuse over the course of one week. Normally, Cook Children’s Medical Center sees an average of six children a year die due to abuse, but on one day that week, two preschoolers died. Cook Hospital soon became the first hospital in America to alert the public about a possible surge in child abuse cases. Experts say that what happened there is likely not an isolated issue.”
According to the Center of Disease Control, one in seven children have experienced child abuse in the past year, but as most American families shelter at home, and over 10 million Americans file for unemployment, anxiety levels are higher than normal. During times of stress, rates of child abuse tend to increase. Considering 90% of child abuse is done by someone the child knows, having children trapped in close quarters with family can be a recipe for disaster. Research have showed that abuse and domestic violence are often fueled by economic stress and unemployment, and with the pandemic, I am afraid when the numbers come out, child abuse will be at a historic high.
But the other key problem while people are locked down is a lack of visibility. Teachers are the biggest reporters of child abuse, but with kids not going to school, reports are likely to drop, if not already. In summer months, according to several articles and research, there tends to be a significant decrease in reported child abuse cases because children are not in school and the teachers are the most prevalent reporters of child abuse.
Several articles have already noted that if the child has to leave the home and be seen by teachers or peers or counselors, the abuser is less likely to inflict abuse on them that would leave injuries or scars that are visible. While reported child abuse rates are down due to less reporting, the rates of serious abuse admissions seem to be up. Sadly, because children are home and nobody knows what is going on behind closed doors, it is very difficult to report.
According to child abuse experts, even though teachers may only be able to observe their students through a video chat window during a remote class, it is important that they continue to monitor them. Signs of abuse could be visible bruises, changes in mood, or continued absences. Additionally, we as a community can keep in “touch” with others that we know may be suffering and it is our duty to seek help for victims of abuse.
There is a lag in official reporting data on child abuse, but child abuse hotlines say calls are increasing. It is probably going to be quite some time before we can actually even quantify how much abuse actually took place during this pandemic according to some experts. This is because states only submit Child Protective Services (CPS) data to the government twice a year, but also because the number of official child abuse reports have dipped significantly during the pandemic. CPS hotlines in New Jersey, Missouri, California, Colorado, and other states have seen a dip in official reports, but the non-profit Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline has seen a 31% increase in calls in the last two months, according to chief communications officer Daphne Young.
Some of the victims from the coronavirus pandemic tragically will be children, who may die not as a result of the virus itself, but from child abuse and neglect. During this public health crisis, risk factors for child maltreatment fatalities are sharply on the rise while protective factors for children and families are weakening. Add to this equation, the diminished operations of the courts and the severing of ties between children and most mandated reporters of child abuse, and the elements align to greatly elevate the risk of harm. Yet we know that many of these deaths are preventable if swift action is taken with a shared sense of responsibility to support vulnerable children and their families now.
According to the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Facilities (CECANF) and the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention, prominent risk factors for child deaths include social isolation, financial insecurity combined with major familial stress, a lack of suitable child care, parents with untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders, and domestic violence in the home — all of which are on the rise as the nation copes with the coronavirus. These elevated risks weigh heavily knowing that child maltreatment already claims the lives of thousands of children every year.
As these risks increase, protective factors for vulnerable children and families such as food security, access to extended family caregivers, pediatric visits, connections within faith communities, and safe spaces such as schools have been diminished. Teachers, school personnel and health care providers are the greatest sources of reports to child abuse hotlines. With so many mandated reporters of child abuse unable to observe and report suspected maltreatment during this crisis, sharp declines in hotline reports are already being seen across the country — and nobody believes this indicates a decline in incidents of abuse.
Accordingly, families who otherwise would be identified through the hotline and screening process and offered services are going it alone. Child protection workers are still investigating reports, but unable to provide the standard array of supports, could be faced with the impossible choice between leaving children in a home with known safety concerns, or conducting removals, knowing that this option poses its own risks and imposes its own trauma.
At the same time, law enforcement officers are being called upon to respond to 911 calls involving child abuse. Police departments are responding often without adequate resources or protections for their officers on the front lines. Dependency courts have had to either shutter or delay all but the most urgent hearings, leaving some children unsafe at home, others stuck in precarious placements, and many families anxiously awaiting reunification.
It is incumbent upon all of us, including courts, law enforcement, education, medical and mental health providers — and even neighbors who may come into contact with young children and families — to continue to be part of a public health approach to child safety during this pandemic. Child maltreatment occurs in all sectors of society, and even healthy families can be pushed to their limits because of severe economic stress and sudden round-the-clock caregiving. We each have a role to play to keep families strong and children safe during this crisis.
We are clearly living in very fragile times but even more so for our children. If you have any comments or inquiries, email me directly at [email protected] or call my office at 310-601-7144.
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