To protect children during COVID-19, we must reach vulnerable families early
Every parent is struggling with life during coronavirus. My heart breaks when I think about the emotional impact our new normal has had on my 10-year-old daughter, stuck in the house with her parents, missing her friends and the rhythms of daily life. Privileged families like mine have been frantically balancing jobs, caregiving, and myriad stressful adjustments to our daily routines to keep deadly infection at bay. But the truth is that families throughout our country have been waging life or death struggles since well before March 2020.
There are 15 million children in America growing up in poverty. A disproportionate number of their families are devastated by the diseases that result from decades of racism and economic deprivation: debilitating trauma, substance misuse, chronic medical conditions, and mental illness. Compounded by the tremendous stresses of unemployment, isolation and food insecurity brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, these conditions can create significant risk factors for child neglect and abuse. Pediatricians and child welfare professionals are justifiably concerned about children while their parents are overwhelmed, their support systems interrupted or broken. The WHO recently released a report expressing concerns of increased risk of abuse and neglect worldwide as a result of isolation and increased stressors during the outbreak.
The pandemic has paralyzed our ability to identify children facing trouble at home. We can no longer rely on the watchful eyes of teachers, coaches and camp counselors while children are quarantined at home. Other alerts have similarly been interrupted. Neighbors are shut in, relatives stranded. Infants and toddlers where I live in New York City are being immunized 63 percent less than they were one year ago, stripping us of a critical opportunity for doctors and nurses to assess family well-being.
Typically, the majority of calls reporting suspected child abuse and neglect come from schools, medical professionals and other concerned adults; during the shutdown, reports to the tipline have plunged. Nationally, calls to states about neglect and abuse have dropped between 30-70 percent. At the same time, there are reports of a rise in serious abuse, such as burns and broken bones, presenting in emergency rooms nationwide. Children, especially young ones, are crossing our radars far too late.
Our country is at a critical juncture: we can either step up and proactively reach vulnerable families, or we can continue to tread water as emerging crises go undetected and our most fragile children fall through the cracks. No caregiver should have to reach a breaking point before they receive support. With a looming mental health crisis on the horizon, we need an alternate detection system, one that is far better integrated with critical services for families that reach them before a child is at risk.
Now is the time to draw on the wisdom and expertise of community-based organizations — whose staff reflect the people they work with – and reinforce their capacity to shore up families’ strengths. Parents know how to raise their children, but need resources privileged families already have: food, medical and cleaning supplies, tutoring, opportunities for recreation and easy access to health and mental health care. Community-based organizations are credible messengers, already working on the ground to mitigate the risk factors contributing to neglect before it happens, and to identify harm when it occurs.
Organizations like food banks, housing services and direct service providers must partner together to help families weather this relentless storm. For example, when a family visits a food pantry in any one of the five boroughs, a representative from a family service organization like JCCA should be there to offer information about life-changing, Medicaid-funded services —like therapy, respite care, or peer support—that they otherwise would never know existed. The earlier our staff can connect with parents on the brink of crisis, the more likely it is that we can prevent trauma for their children.
We’ve witnessed the positive impact of these services firsthand. JCCA is already on the front lines in communities hit hardest by the pandemic in the epicenter of the outbreak, providing both in-person and virtual programming that builds coping and self-advocacy skills, engages children and parents, and intervenes when a crisis nears. We develop the strengths that families already have, create connections to community resources, and offer emotional and behavioral supports that are responsive to families’ needs.
Now we need to ensure similar organizations across the country have the resources they need to do the same, and work to dramatically reduce risks for child neglect and abuse for our most vulnerable families. We can start by making a substantive investment in prevention through the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
We can help kids stay out of the emergency room, avoid psychiatric hospitalizations, and stabilize families at risk of removal to foster care. Our nation’s leaders have an opportunity and an obligation in the COVID-19 crisis to empower and sustain our most vulnerable neighbors with a coordinated outreach system that keeps children safe, helps parents facing extraordinary stresses, and gives them the support and resources every family deserves.
Ronald Richter is CEO of JCCA.