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Social distancing is tough on the youngest ones | READER COMMENTARY

An empty children's playground after the government banned its usage due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. All public and private events are banned in Lithuania, clubs, bars restaurants and most shops are closed due to the virus outbreak. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
An empty children's playground after the government banned its usage due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. All public and private events are banned in Lithuania, clubs, bars restaurants and most shops are closed due to the virus outbreak. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis) (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

Matt Dragonette’s letter to the editor on the potential harms of social isolation (“Is social isolation potentially more harmful than the outbreak?” March 28) urges soul-searching over the trade-offs we are making with our most vulnerable populations. Specifically referencing children, he wonders how closing schools might stunt student growth on how cancelling sports might result in medical issues in the future. These concerns are the least of our worries.

The combination of overwhelming economic stress, extreme social isolation and limited control over outcomes creates a literal “perfect storm” that will produce cataclysmic increases of child abuse and neglect and other childhood traumas like domestic violence and parental substance abuse. The results will last generations. In a city just beginning to implement a trauma-responsive approach to how it engages with its citizens, Baltimore — and the entire state of Maryland — is about to experience a rise in trauma even the most pessimistic public servant could not have imagined just a few weeks ago.

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As researchers and child advocates have extolled for decades, the causes of child abuse and neglect include parental stress, social isolation, inadequate supports and limited access to resources. Each of these causal conditions has reached unprecedented and extraordinary levels as a result of the COVID-19 interventions. Parental stress is both ubiquitous and profound. In addition, many parents perceive a dramatic lack of control over the outcomes of the COVID-19 interventions — not the least of which is how long the economic and social restrictions will last. When we adults find ourselves in highly stressful contexts, our perception of how much control we have over the outcome directly impacts the severity of our stress response. When perceived control is low, stress is high. Compounding the problem is that healthy outlets for adult stress are limited or nonexistent, unhealthy alternatives like substance use is sought which seldom portends a good prognosis for the children under our care and supervision.

Social isolation exacerbates parental stress because the support of others — friends, co-parents, extended family, religious organizations and social services — is often the difference between effective stress management and more impulsive and often volatile behavioral responses. Inadequate resources abound because even fewer families than government officials saw this coming. Parents who have lost income, health-care access, food sources, transportation options and child care services are experiencing a tsunami of adverse events that even the most supported and resilient adult would find difficult to manage. The limited access to resources that are available to parents contributes further to the crushing weight of what the COVID-19 response has wrought. Schools and child care facilities are closed. Social services are being delivered remotely (if you have internet access), and most home-based services have been suspended.

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This restricted access to services also eliminates a primary protector of children — being seen by other caring adults. If children are not seen in school or the community then child abuse and neglect goes unseen as well. When child advocates do not get to homes to engage with a support families, the shadows in which abuse and neglect proliferate grow deeper and longer. It is not too late to prevent the child maltreatment even under these dire conditions. Government authorities and child advocates can adapt to the social isolation restrictions so that supportive adults have physical access to vulnerable families and can support them. In addition, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, teachers and pediatricians can discover new ways to reach out to help families reduce stressors.

We can make calls to parents to “be with them” and encourage them to notice, name and express their fears, frustration, anger and depression and help them problem solve. Just like checking on the elders in our community, it is more important than ever to check on the children. Applying our ingenuity and “can do” spirit to connecting with families during this crisis, we can mitigate the unseen crisis impacting Maryland’s children.

Perhaps most important, we can start now to prepare as a community for the extreme treatment needs that hundreds and likely thousands of children will bring us once this storm has passed. If we start preparing now we can respond with the skill, knowledge and human connection required to help our children heal.

Frank J. Kros, Fallston

Add your voice: Respond to this piece or other Sun content by submitting your own letter.

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