Coronavirus's collateral damage: Abused and neglected children

Coronavirus's collateral damage: Abused and neglected children
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The coronavirus pandemic will leave many dead in its wake. Tragically, some of its victims will be children, who may die not as a result of the virus itself, but from child abuse and neglect. During this public health crisis, risk factors for child maltreatment fatalities are sharply on the rise while protective factors for children and families are weakening.

Add to this equation the diminished operations of the courts and the severing of ties between children and most mandated reporters of child abuse, and the elements align to greatly elevate the risk of harm. Yet we know that many of these deaths are preventable if swift action is taken with a shared sense of responsibility to support vulnerable children and their families now.

According to the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) and the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention, prominent risk factors for child deaths include social isolation, financial insecurity combined with major familial stress, a lack of suitable child care, parents with untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders, and domestic violence in the home — all of which are on the rise as the nation copes with the coronavirus. These elevated risks weigh heavily knowing that child maltreatment already claims the lives of thousands of children every year.

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As these risks increase, protective factors for vulnerable children and families such as food security, access to extended family caregivers, pediatric visits, connections within faith communities, and safe spaces such as schools have been diminished. Teachers, school personnel and health care providers are the greatest sources of reports to child abuse hotlines. With so many mandated reporters of child abuse unable to observe and report suspected maltreatment during this crisis, sharp declines in hotline reports are already being seen across the country — and nobody believes this indicates a decline in incidents of abuse. 

Families who otherwise would be identified through the hotline and screening process and offered services are going it alone. Child protection workers still investigating reports, but unable to provide the standard array of supports, could be faced with the impossible choice between leaving children in a home with known safety concerns, or conducting removals, knowing that this option poses its own risks and imposes its own trauma.

At the same time, law enforcement officers are being called upon to respond to 911 calls involving child abuse. Police departments are responding often without adequate resources or protections for their officers on the front lines. Dependency courts have had to either shutter or delay all but the most urgent hearings, leaving some children unsafe at home, others stuck in precarious placements, and many families anxiously awaiting reunification.

In spite of this dangerous combination of circumstances, the bipartisan CECANF emphasized that child fatalities are preventable when we commit to a shared family and community responsibility to keep children safe. The National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths is dedicated to advancing the CECANF’s recommendations and is advocating federally to prevent maltreatment fatalities during this pandemic. Other advocacy groups, such as the National Child Abuse Coalition, have sent letters to Congress with specific requests for critically-needed dollars to bolster federal programs that support families and protect children. Most of these requests have not been addressed in the federal government’s three stimulus packages to date. Congress must include these provisions in the next COVID-19 relief bill.

It is incumbent upon all of us, including courts, law enforcement, education, medical and mental health providers — and even neighbors who may come into contact with young children and families — to continue to be part of a public health approach to child safety during this pandemic. Child maltreatment occurs in all sectors of society, and even healthy families can be pushed to their limits because of severe economic stress and sudden round-the-clock caregiving. We each have a role to play to keep families strong and children safe during this crisis.

Nelson Bunn is the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. Amy Harfeld is the national policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute and coordinates the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths.