How to protect against child abuse during COVID-19 pandemic | COMMENTARY
By Deepa Joshi and Joshua Sharfstein
For The Baltimore Sun|
May 05, 2020 at 12:40 PM
Maryland’s stay-at-home order protects communities from COVID-19 transmission, but staying at home does not mean safety for everyone. During past natural disasters and the 2009 financial crisis, reports of child abuse increased. Children may once again be at greater risk for abuse and neglect now, but with children confined at home with reduced connections to support systems, fewer cases may be detected.
Maryland child protective services is already experiencing a precipitous drop in child abuse reports paralleling COVID-19 related closures, with up to 70% fewer reports compared to this time last year. Following early action by California, Maryland can invest now to support families at risk.
There are four principal reasons why this pandemic is threatening the safety of children.
First, caregivers are experiencing increased stress from financial instability and general uncertainty from COVID-19. Since March 14, more than 380,000 people have filed unemployment claims in Maryland. Increased parental stress raises the risk for child maltreatment.
Second, children are spending more time at home as a result of school and child care closures. Developmentally, children are unable to vocalize stress and anxiety, and may manifest their feelings by acting out or with regressive behaviors — which tests caregivers’ patience and parenting skills.
Third, extreme social distancing orders may make families feel more isolated and unable to seek help. Families are unable to access outlets they depend on for parenting assistance and child care, such as religious organizations and extended family support.
Fourth, schools are an important safety net for children, with educators usually reporting 20% of all child abuse cases. While closed schools have shifted to online learning, digital platforms are not conducive to identifying the subtle cues of stress in a child’s home environment. Consequently, typical intervention points and cases of child abuse may be missed.
On April 13, citing these risks, California Gov. Gavin Newsom committed $42 million to protecting children and their families affected by COVID-19. The funding will provide $200 per month to families “at risk” of entering foster care to offload financial stress. These families are identified through the state’s child welfare programs that perform the initial stage of child welfare investigations.
California also added support for 2-1-1 and Parents Anonymous, which are helpline services that offer immediate assistance to families in crisis by connecting caregivers to local services, support groups and resource centers. Additionally, California is increasing funding to its Child Welfare Services agency for greater social worker outreach and support for foster families.
Maryland can move quickly to take these and additional actions. Specifically, the state can expand home televisiting programs to connect with vulnerable families. Evidence-based home visiting programs prevent child maltreatment. During the pandemic, 9 out of 10 home visits are occurring through interactive video conferencing or phone calls. However, the two biggest barriers preventing family participation in digital visits are lack of technology and lack of stable internet access. Consequently, Maryland can support adequate technological access for families enrolled in this important support service. Providing families technological access has benefits beyond home visiting by also facilitating access to telehealth services, social connectedness and children’s distance learning.
Child abuse and neglect leave indelible scars that manifest in children’s physical and mental health for years to come. Therefore, what is done to support children today will affect their trajectory — and Maryland’s future. Waiting for an increase in reports of child abuse in our state would be waiting too long.
Deepa Joshi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a pediatrician pursuing a master’s of public health and Joshua Sharfstein (email@example.com) is a pediatrician and professor of the practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This article reflects their views and not necessarily the views of Johns Hopkins.