Child Abuse and Neglect During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jackalyn Carione

Reports of child abuse and neglect have gone down nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic. Yet experts say this is not an accurate portrayal of what is happening — and there’s a greater chance that child abuse has actually increased.

Due to financial hardship and an insufficient social safety net, families are facing high levels of stress, and research shows this is linked with higher levels of family abuse. Also, throughout the pandemic, schools have been closed, which makes abuse harder to detect. The articles below evaluate the current challenges in responding to child abuse in Hawaiʻi and across the country and provide tips on how to spot child abuse as a community member.

School’s Out and With It A Reliable System For Flagging Abuse – Honolulu Civil Beat, May 13, 2020

Teachers and other school workers are some of the most reliable reporters of abuse in Hawaiʻi. However, as the previous school year wrapped up with children doing distance learning, reports of child abuse from teachers dropped to zero in April. In 2019 and before closures in 2020, schools accounted for 460 reports. Children confide in their counselors and teachers because they trust them and have built a long-term relationship with them, leading to more accurate reports. Earlier this year, unemployment in Hawaiʻi jumped from 3% to 37% in just a matter of months. Studies show that increased stress levels in families can lead to higher levels of family violence.

Now, due to the pandemic, more reports of child abuse are coming from neighbors and family members. Last March and April, there were four reports of child abuse from friends and neighbors, compared to 19 reports in those same months this year. Foster care is another area of concern, because social workers are only doing face-to-face visits in response to emergencies. Advocates say the rate of abuse at foster homes is higher than in the general population and without social worker visits, child abuse cases may go undetected.  Pediatricians are also concerned because they rely on social workers’ reports to get the information they need as doctors to care for their patients.

Has child abuse surged under COVID-19? Despite alarming stories from ERs, there's no answer – NBC News, July 25, 2020

According to an analysis done by NBC News of 43 states and Washington, DC, reports of child abuse during the coronavirus pandemic have dropped an average of 40.6% compared to the same time last year. Experts, however, are concerned there may actually be a large increase in child abuse due to unemployment and financial strain. After the 2008 recession, studies show that the rise in unemployment was connected to an increase in child abuse. Now, due to school closures because of COVID-19, children are not in view of teachers and school staff, who make up a fifth of all child abuse reports.

In March and April of this year, pediatricians have reported treating more severe injuries caused by abuse as well as more fatalities. The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline received 31 percent more calls in March compared to 2019. Chief Communications Officer Daphne Young said, “We’re getting much more intensified calls, more abuse disclosure, and stories of sexual abuse and much higher anxiety calls from people who are suffering.” Data does not show yet if there was a surge in the severity of abuse cases during the pandemic, because investigations can take months once they are reported to child protective agencies.

The current child welfare system is reactive, relying heavily on intervention and reporting, but during the pandemic, researchers and advocates have renewed their calls to put more resources into prevention. In addition to protective services, advocates said that mandatory reporters should be able to contact other places and agencies, such as home visiting programs and food banks. In 2018, the Family First Prevention and Services Act passed, allowing states to re-allocate federal funds that were previously only used for foster care services. Now, states can use these funds for mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services for children who are at risk of being removed from their homes. Like other states, Hawai‛i is in the process of creating and implementing a plan to do so

Programs that focus on lessening financial stress, such as food pantries, baby pantries, and child care subsidies, can reduce many child neglect cases. A study in Children and Youth Services Review found that raising the minimum wage by $1 reduced reports of child abuse and neglect by nearly 10 percent. Alleviating poverty will help reduce child abuse and neglect, and after COVID-19, it is essential these programs do not get cut from federal and state budgets.

Join HCAN’s free upcoming workshops on resilience and trauma-informed care:

September 16 and September 23: Two-part Community-Wide Resilience Training Sessions. Hosted by HCAN, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health, and the Community Resilience Initiative.

September 26: Trauma-Informed Care Strategies for 0-5 Child Care Providers. Hosted by HCAN and the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health and sponsored by Kamehameha Schools.

Tips on how to help keep children safe during the pandemic from Providence:

Look for signs of suspected child abuse and neglect:

  • You notice parents acting aggressively or hear repeated shouting
  • You hear things being broken or a child being hit
  • You hear children crying for long periods of time
  • You notice safety hazards, including unsecured weapons within a child’s reach, drugs or unsanitary conditions at home
  • A child’s guardian appears intoxicated or unable to care for children
  • Children look dirty or wear dirty clothes repeatedly
  • Children appear withdrawn or depressed
  • Injuries not consistent with what you’d expect a child to have
  • If you’re on a video call and the environment does not look safe and clean

Here’s how you can help:

  • Engage, connect with families: Let others know you’re available to help whether it be making dinner, watching their children or listening. During the pandemic, this may look like setting up a weekly call to check in.
  • Listen to children: Let them share their experiences and frustrations. Empathize and share stories of your own struggles. Show up for them and let them know you are always available and, more importantly, a safe place.
  • Pay attention: Look for visual cues and listen for verbal cues that may indicate stress, worry or even maltreatment. Red flags may include statements like:

“I’m just so mad all the time.”

 “I don’t know what to do.”

 “Mommy yells a lot.”

“We don’t do/say that. It makes Mommy/Daddy mad.”

If you suspect child abuse:

If you suspect child abuse or maltreatment, call 2-1-1 or text “ALOHA” to 741741 to speak with a trained crisis counselor.

If you suspect a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

For more tips and resources, please visit Nuture Daily for local resources in Hawai‛i and the End Violence Against Children and the Providence website for more general resources on prevention and parenting.

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