Across the county, governors have placed stay-at-home orders keeping families at home to reduce the spread of coronavirus. In some cases, it’s called a safer-at-home order.
But what if you’re not safer at home?
The COVID-19 pandemic has created not just a worldwide health crisis but also an economic disaster and a mental health emergency. And now child welfare experts fear the next pandemic could be child abuse.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, child abuse pediatrician Dr. Nina Agrawal says during times of distress, children will often fall victim to abuse. For parents who struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues, stay-at-home orders leave no room for reprieve.
“As a child abuse pediatrician, I typically see more cases in the fall because abuse that occurs during the summer often goes undetected,” wrote Dr. Agrawal. “I expect that when this period of social distancing comes to an end, I’ll see a similar surge.”
It’s an issue that has been opined and reported on widely since last month with states closing schools and enforcing more restrictions. But it’s just as much a local issue as it is a national or global issue.
Stacey Kostevicki, executive director of Gulf Coast Kid’s House (GCKH), says COVID-19 has created a “perfect storm” for abuse risk factors.
“First, children are out of school. Many caregivers have their routine disrupted and struggle with ensuring that their children can remain monitored and safe. Second, caregivers are stretched very thin. They are having to balance demands at work (whether working remotely or going to the office) with now acting as remote teachers. This is a role many were not prepared to take on.”
And for the caregivers that are still working, they are struggling to find childcare for kids or forced to leave them home alone, Kostevicki said.
“This poses, to me, one of the biggest threats,” she added. “The biggest predictor for child sexual abuse is access—children with unsupervised access to other children and adults.”
GCKH is a children’s advocacy center, where all of the professionals and resources needed to investigate, treat and prosecute child abuse cases are under one roof. Compared to data last year, Kostevicki said the agency has not seen an uptick in reports, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. She said she expects to see a surge in reports one to three months after the pandemic relaxes.
“Almost 20% of child abuse reports come from school teachers and guidance counselors, and with children less visible in the community, children have lost their safety net,” she said. “We have actually seen a small decrease in child abuse reports, but it’s not that it isn’t happening. It’s just not being reported.”
Caring During COVID-19
Children’s Home Society (CHS) is a nonprofit organization that works to help families before they are in crisis. With COVID-19, that workload has drastically escalated.
“Right now, families that were already struggling to meet their basic needs are going to need support more than ever,” said Lindsey Cannon, regional executive director of CHS of Florida. “Our community is experiencing job losses, school closures, loss of childcare and key support systems—all major stressors for parents.”
“The urgency and demand to create safer, more stable homes has never been greater,” she added. “And the call for our community to be on high alert for kids in potentially dangerous situations is just as great.”
According to Cannon, 75% of children in the foster care system today are there due to issues such as untreated mental health challenges, lack of parental support or role models and lack of access to necessities such as affordable medical care, groceries or childcare.
These issues are seemingly fixable with the right resources, Cannon said, which is why CHS has remodeled their organization to accommodate social distancing practices in order to keep supporting families.
“Our partners in the community really are working creatively to bring new families into our foster care programs,” said Cannon. “I have seen creative support opportunities being created through Zoom and other online platforms. To help kids, teens and parents navigate these tough times, CHS counselors, parent coaches and mentors have leapt into action to meet families virtually with HIPAA-compliant applications, understanding the need is greater now than perhaps ever before.”
The CHS Ashley Offerdahl Counseling Program serves an average of 400 kids each month. Those virtual solutions ensure no appointments are missed.
“This is crucial to keeping families safe as COVID-19 disrupts schedules and elevates feelings of anxiety and fear,” said Cannon. “Proper mental health care is critical.”
CHS Healthy Families and Healthy Start coaches and guides are also helping parents manage stress and provide a safe outlet to express frustration through virtual visits. Early childhood programs are highly effective, as nearly 100% of participating families remain abuse-free.
But in some situations, counseling and coaching aren’t enough. Now, as always, foster families are in demand.
“The need is for new families to come to the table to serve our children who could not remain safely at home and to work with their family to return that child back to a safe environment,” said Cannon. “This truly selfless way of living has changed countless lives.”
Protecting children is very much essential. While GCKH building is currently closed to the public, it has not stopped its mission. But there have been some changes to operations. Children and caretakers are screened for COVID-19 prior to their arrival and again after arrival. If either are symptomatic, staff takes extra precautions with personal protective equipment. Forensic interviews have been moved to a larger space to accommodate distancing guidelines. Interviews and therapy are done remotely.
Child Abuse Awareness Month
April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, which is typically a month of fundraisers and events to raise awareness and money to support the cause. But due to COVID-19, many nonprofits, like GCKH and CHS, have had to cancel such events. Monetary donations are needed to keep staff working, programs running and families safe.
For those at home who want to learn more about child abuse prevention, you can find a lot of resource material on the Gulf Coast Kid’s House website, including educational resources for parents. Additionally, the nonprofit Lauren’s Kids, from Florida State Senator and child sexual abuse survivor Lauren Book, is launching digital safety programming. Every Monday in April, there will be a new interactive program. Find them on Facebook at facebook.com/laurenskids.
Protecting children takes community effort. And in the state of Florida, every adult is mandated to report suspected child abuse. Without the usual safety nets in place, the responsibility falls on all of us. You can anonymously make a report by calling 1-800-96Abuse.
“As families face unprecedented challenges with no end date in sight, community support is critical to keep families safe, strong and stable during COVID-19,” said Cannon. “If you are feeling overwhelmed, helpless, scared and in need of services, please contact us. You are not alone. If you know someone who is on the brink of emotional crisis, let them know hope is here.”
And sometimes, the easiest way to make an impact is just by being compassionate.
“We are all dealing with this COVID-19 in different ways. Some days, we are OK—other days, we are grieving and even other times we are angry,” said Kostevicki. “Offer support where you can and make sure to talk about the risks of increased abuse during stressful and isolated times.”
Originally posted by: In Weekly