Preventing Child Abuse in a Pandemic: Helpful Tips

Our current national landscape is one of physical isolation. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 9 out of 10 Americans are staying home right now, either because of stay-at-home orders, or because they fear getting or spreading the novel coronavirus. That almost 300 million Americans are homebound and probably will be for an extended period of time is extraordinary and unprecedented in our lifetime. A portion of the homebound are continuing to earn a paycheck and while the stressors of COVID-19 for that group of people are very real, there is another portion of the homebound suffering much great repercussions from this pandemic.

The Department of Labor reported that last week alone, 3.28 million people applied for unemployment. This is more than four times the previously highest recorded number. For the 75% of Americans already facing the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, things just got considerably worse. Add to that the strain of fear and anxiety of a pandemic; the social isolation we must all endure; that children are home without the support (and break) given by schools or childcare; and the strain on already overburdened social services and you have a recipe for domestic disaster. And that list barely scratches the surface of the host of family-specific issues each household bears.

If history is any indicator, the result of domestic disaster will fall disproportionally on our most vulnerable; cases of child abuse and neglect (as well as domestic violence) will rise sharply while reports of the same will drop drastically: with schools and childcare centers closed, the sharpest eyes and ears of our child welfare reporting system—our teachers—are closed as well. And like so many things with this pandemic, one problem becomes compounded by another: Even as more children than ever are home 24/7 with their families, social workers are unable to conduct home visits with those already in the child welfare system due to abuse and neglect and are similarly unable to visit homes when new reports do occur.

Services previously provided to families—such as drug treatment and mental health services—are severely limited or non-existent due to social distancing requirements, and family visitations are often not occurring, potentially leading to a downward spiral of hopelessness and depression for parents and teens who may turn towards drugs, alcohol, or other damaging acts to ease the pain. All of this combined leads to a significantly increased risk of harm behind the closed doors of American homes. Sadly, there is little most of us can do to fix these problems: Children’s outdoor areas are emptier now than ever, and we simply are unable to keep a collective eye on children and suffering families the way we need to.

But that isn’t to say there is nothing we can do, and what we can do, we should.

Stress of all kinds is a significant contributing factor to abuse and neglect. Tempers are short, resources scarce to non-existent, and tools some are fortunate enough to have for comfort—Zoom calls with friends; virtual “playdates” for children; paying for online games, movies, and school substitutes to keep the children occupied—are not easily obtained by lower income families. And even the families who have the resources may find they aren’t enough.

But don’t give up! There are ways we can help families from all backgrounds, though I will admit that many of the ones I’ve listed below assume that the person helping has resources of their own to draw from (time, money, or energy). A few of these might help our most significantly at-risk families—those with serious addictions, long family histories of abuse, or the types of terrible things we read about in the media—but others wouldn’t. But again, what we can do, we should.

Abuse knows no economic, cultural, or societal bounds. From my years working with families already in the child welfare system, I can promise you that. I can also say that the simplest assistance, and perhaps the silliest sounding, might be all that’s needed to avert a catastrophe.

Consider a morning from my own life:

I, an obsessively tidy mother, sit in the middle of an increasingly cluttered home. My back and feet hurt, and the younger kids are arguing loudly while the oldest child tries to get some much needed sleep. Andy, a hard-working and busy father, already stressed from hiding in the walk-in closet to do Zoom calls where kids can’t find him, too loudly shushes the arguing kids. The kids begin to complain about the unfairness of it all and I try to intervene while stumbling over the puppy pulling on my socks and biting my toes. The other dog begins to bark at a person walking by, and both Andy and I begin to shush the dogs. The kids’ voices grow louder to be heard over the din of shushes and barks, and my mom, who lives with us, suddenly appears in the kitchen, asking why her dog is barking and saying she may need to go to the hospital for stomach pains but is scared to because of the virus so what do I think she should do and can I please contact her doctor for her? The gardeners begin mowing next door and within a minute we all hear a door slam from upstairs because the 24-year-old has frustratingly given up on getting any sleep.

Our situation eventually resolves as best it can: Andy takes one kid to do a puzzle and I take the other to bake some bread, but not before I hop on one of the four laptops in our home to email a doctor, free of charge and easily accessible, about my mom. Sad to say, the oldest is still tired and the dogs still bark, but few things in life are perfect.

In this scenario, the main fridge is stocked, as are the one fridge and two freezers in the garage. We always buy in bulk so our toilet paper situation is fine. The same pay the adults usually get is still coming in, and the grandmother who walked into the kitchen at an inopportune time lives in the home and can watch the children should that be needed. Oh, and I have plenty of time to spend with the children and enough education to help them with their e-learning during our school’s closure.

And still, this isn’t a pretty situation. Imagine if:

  • The fridge was bare
  • The parents had just lost their jobs
  • There was no adult in the home with available time for the kids
  • Any one—or all—of the four adults had a substance abuse problem or untreated mental health issue

This scene could have ended in a very different and explosive way.

And so:

Think about your own circle of people, as far as it can go. Who in that circle is most in need of a break right now? Do you know any single parents? Someone who struggles with addiction? A family with a small home but a large number of kids? Someone who lost a job? Who is sick? Who is prone to anxiety and depression? The list could go on, and it should. Make an actual, physical list of people in your life facing larger-than-average stressors. Do you have their phone number? Their email addresses? Do they live within driving distance? Write those things down as well, then:

  • Call them. Talk to them. Ask to speak to the children for a while. Maybe read the kids a book over the phone or on FaceTime if possible.
  • Text them. Ask how they are. Tell them how you are. Send a funny meme. Ask if they need anything. Or don’t ask, but just assume they need something and then …
  • if possible, get it to them. Mail them $20 or a grocery store gift card. Leave food or other necessities (or non-necessities!) on their steps. Shop for them if they’re in a high-risk group. No, money doesn’t solve everything, but it can certainly help at times like this.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of income to spare (and hey, we’re all going without our lattes these days), order something online to send to the kids to keep them distracted. Or send chocolates for the parents. Loan them an extra laptop by leaving it on their porch and letting them use it for Google Hangout or online school or even just mindless show watching. Again, these are money and material things, but if you can do it, please do. We may not like to admit it, but material things do often help.
  • Kids are still going outside, even if not to designated playgrounds. When they’re out, pay attention. Do they seem okay? Do the adults who are with them seem okay? What do you notice? Don’t turn into the nosy neighbor peeking out from behind the curtain—that’s just weird. You’re likely a savvy enough person to find a non-stalking way to do this. If you see signs of abuse or neglect report it, even if your state’s current isolation situation means a social worker can’t make it out for a while the risk still needs to be recorded. Then make it your daily commitment to help that family any way possible.
  • Offer to watch younger kids (but who old enough not to need hand holding or carrying) outside while their adults take a break. You don’t have to forgo social distancing rules to make this happen.
  • Have a six-foot-away playdate with your kids and theirs.
  • Take a social distance walk together. Or talk to one another from your own front doors.
  • Send them a card in the mail. A homemade one is fine, so you only have to pay for the stamp.
  • Offer to walk their dogs (seriously, don’t underestimate the power of this!)
  • Volunteer with or donate to groups that are helping those in the most financial need.
  • Donate not just food, money, and cleaning products, but board games, movies, electronics, coloring books—anything that can entertain children/teens or provide relief for parents. Do the same with any and all income groups if/when you think it might be helpful.
  • And, of course, pray for them.

Here are some other resources for how you can help at-risk families during this pandemic:

End Violence Against Children

The Alliance for Children in Humanitarian Action

Prevent Child Abuse

What you will find using these resources is a significant emphasis on stress reduction. Because that is what so much of this is truly about. Stress decreases our abilities to appropriately cope with even typical events such as arguing or crying children. And without appropriate coping abilities, typical situations can quickly turn to situations of abuse, even for families who otherwise would never find themselves taking such harmful actions.

Feel free to make your own list of stress reduction ideas for how we can assist those in need during this time. Act on those ideas and do it now. It’s never too soon to help a family in need, but it is often too late.

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