As the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on, there’s been a notable drop in the number of reported child abuse cases — and that’s raising alarm bells among child welfare experts across the country.
In Washington, D.C., for example, hotline reports of abuse and neglect plummeted 62 percent compared to the same March-April period last year. Virginia saw a 94 percent drop in referrals from schools.
At first glance, a decrease in reported child abuse would seem to be a positive trend. But what’s actually happening is that the COVID-19 crisis forced schools to close nationwide and educators are the most active reporters of child abuse cases. In other words, cases of child abuse only appear to be declining because teachers, coaches, doctors and other authorities aren’t around to spot the abuses.
In fact, just the opposite trend seems to be happening. With millions of kids staying at home and families in lock-down, authorities see strong evidence that more children are being abused. Calls and messages to the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, for example, have soared 31 percent this March compared to the same month in 2019.
The cases that do come to light are more horrific because the injuries are so severe that they require the child to be hospitalized.
Sadly, some hospitals are reporting a higher rate of deaths from suspected child abuse during the pandemic. Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, for instance, saw two abused children die from their injuries in a single week — at the same time the city declared an emergency over the spread of the virus. Typically, the hospital sees fewer than 10 fatalities from child abuse in a year.
Why is this happening?
Child welfare authorities say the pandemic has led to a bitter brew of compounding factors: Schools closed. Entire families in lock-down together. Economic upheaval from millions of businesses closed down and the ranks of the unemployed swelling to Great Depression-era levels. General uncertainty, stress and anxiety created by the still-unfolding spread of the novel COVID-19.
With the closure of schools and daycare centers, children are being forced to spend more time with adults who may not be safe for them — their parents, in most cases. The vast majority of child abuse perpetrators are a parent of their victim (77.5%) or a relative of the victim (6.4%), according to federal statistics.
Meanwhile, teachers and counselors aren’t around to look for tell-tale signs of abuse such as behavioral problems, unusual bruises or cuts, or depression.
“You’ve got stressed adults and vulnerable children and very few exits,” said Jeanine Harper, executive director of Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now), in an interview with The Washington Post. “And you don’t have eyes on them.”
“When there is household dysfunction — domestic violence, parental substance abuse or a mental disorder — the risk of child abuse goes up, and there’s reason to believe all of these things will increase during this pandemic,” Nina Agrawal, a child abuse pediatrician, writing in The New York Times.
For children in foster care, COVID-19 has brought additional stressors. With entire communities in lock-down and staffers out sick, case workers have been unable to keep up with the normal load of cases. There’s also a severe lack of trained individuals who can alleviate the strain on case workers.
Meanwhile, children who have already experienced years of abuse, neglect and abandonment are facing the added anxiety, loneliness and upheaval of social isolation due to the virus. And the uncertainty created by COVID-19 is certainly not helping to make placements easier for foster children and families.
What can be done to help during COVID-19?
Most immediately, while most states are still in lock-down mode, concerned stakeholders can utilize technology to conduct virtual check-ins. If possible, reach out directly to at-risk children with a phone call, text or via social media to gauge their well-being and to simply let them know that they’re not alone and they have someone around who can help.
For families that might be struggling in this crisis, an act of kindness can go a long way. Bring over food, distractions like games and toys, or personal care items like toilet paper. Help out with a chore. Just the kind presence of a caring neighbor, friend or family member can be a big lift.
To counter the expected long-term impact of this pandemic, what’s needed are creative solutions that come from collaborative partnerships among child and family welfare organizations. These groups must come together to mitigate the effects of the public health crisis on the most vulnerable children, now and into the future.
Royal Family Kids has long recognized that family-induced trauma, coupled with major shortfalls in the current support systems, have created inter-generational cycles of harm for children, families and society at large. During this pandemic, we are working hard to find opportunities to leverage our network of more than 15,000 vetted and trained volunteers to help alleviate the epidemic of child abuse brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
Most importantly, we are aiming to create resilient communities with greater ability to withstand the impact of the current public health disaster and future disruptions that might put children at risk and in harm’s way.