The coronavirus pandemic has most families under strict orders to stay at home to protect themselves and others. But for children at risk of abuse, the mandates might trap them with someone who means them harm.
Childhelp, which runs a 24-hour child abuse hotline, said it has received 28 percent more calls, texts, and social media messages since statewide shelter-in-place orders started last month. During one recent week, Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, saw seven cases of severe child abuse. Typically, the hospital sees that many cases in a month. All of the victims were younger than 4, and two of them died.
“We cannot let a health pandemic turn into a child abuse pandemic,” said Daphne Young, a spokeswoman for Childhelp.
Meanwhile, numerous state social service agencies reported a concerning drop in the number of reports of child abuse and neglect since the coronavirus outbreak. Pennsylvania public child welfare advocates received 837 fewer calls the week after the state’s schools closed, while the Missouri Department of Social Services reported a 50 percent drop in calls to its child abuse and neglect hotline since March 11.
Many advocates attribute the decrease to school closures and community activity cancellations. Children now have little to no daily contact with mandatory reporters like teachers, counselors, child care providers, social workers, coaches, and medical professionals who often spot abuse.
Those living with an unrelated and unvetted adult, such as a mother’s live-in boyfriend, are at the highest risk for physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, while children being raised by their married, biological parents are statistically the safest, said Katy Faust, founder and director of Them Before Us, a child advocacy group.
Faust, a pastor’s wife and a mother of four, has observed a “dramatic split” in family experiences during the pandemic. Some parents describe the isolation with their children as “a time to connect and grow closer,” but others, including some single mothers and blended families, say the changes exacerbate challenges that already existed.
Many parents are facing mounting economic stress, including job layoffs or other losses resulting from the coronavirus outbreak. Those factors often trigger mental health or substance abuse problems. “All of these things are a tinder box for child abuse,” Young said.
During the 2008 recession, Cook Children’s saw the leading cause of death from trauma shift from car accidents to abusive head injuries, according to hospital spokeswoman Kim Brown.
Meanwhile, social workers who oversee at-risk children are limiting home visits, practicing social distancing, and using video conferencing when possible. Child welfare workers in numerous states—including Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington—have tested positive for COVID-19.
Hector Matias, director of foster care and adoption at TLC Child and Family Services, which serves six Northern California counties, said the group’s 100 staff members are doing their best to follow safety protocols while serving children and families in the foster care system. Still, he has seen an increase in calls for youth in need of placement in foster homes.
Matias underscored the importance of people looking out for children and families within their neighborhood and circle of influence. “Call, check in, see if they need anything … leave an encouraging voicemail,” he said. “A lot of isolation occurs in times like these.”