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The impact of COVID-19 on child abuse

April 11, 2022

The impact of COVID-19 on child abuse

Since 1983, April has been recognized as National Child Abuse Awareness Month. This annual event is intended to raise awareness and inspire collective efforts to help protect youth from the harmful effects of abuse.

Child abuse is a serious public health concern that can have lasting impacts on victims’ health and overall well-being. Child abuse includes any type of maltreatment or neglect against an individual younger than 18 years of age. Child abuse may be committed by anyone, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 91% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows.

There are four main types of abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. According to the CDC, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced some form of abuse and/or neglect in the past year. In addition, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse at some point in their childhood. Even before the increased risk factors created by the COVID-19 pandemic, 1,840 children died from abuse or neglect within the United States in 2019 alone.1

Abused children may suffer not only from immediate physical injuries such as cuts, bruises or broken bones, but they may also suffer from long-term emotional and psychological problems such as impaired social-emotional skills or anxiety. If left untreated, affected children may experience ongoing challenges and missed opportunities due to abuse. For example, exposure to violence in childhood can increase the risk of injury, future violence victimization and perpetration, substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections, delayed brain development, lower educational attainment and limited employment opportunities.1

COVID-19 and child abuse

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the country and the world, causing substantial economic and social transformation. The heightened stressors, school closures, loss of income and social isolation resulting from the pandemic have been linked to an increase in instances of child abuse and neglect.2

In addition, COVID-19 caused substantial economic hardships for millions of families, which accelerated inequalities already in place among vulnerable populations. Historic rates of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression caused economic strain, food insecurity and reduced self-esteem. Compounding these concerns, studies have shown that unemployed parents are four times more likely to neglect their children and twice as likely to abuse them physically.2

Unprecedented social isolation requirements, including stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines, impacted nearly every family in the country. As a result, many parents were forced to cope with economic and mental-health strains stemming from the pandemic without the benefit of extrafamilial support. Furthermore, previous studies have shown that parents with less social support are more likely to abuse or neglect their children.2

Lockdown orders also meant all members of a household lost their social outlets. This upheaval and isolation contributed considerably to an increase in abuse.

Increased isolation meant that many traditional reporters of child maltreatment, such as teachers, school nurses and mental health providers, had reduced access to their students and patients. Thus, they couldn’t provide a venue for referrals to child protective services (CPS), contributing to a 51% drop in official CPS reports in New York state and declines by as much as 70% in other states.2 Meanwhile, the number of children reaching out directly for help from CPS authorities has skyrocketed across the board. In one of many examples, for the first time in its history, more than 50% of the visitors to the Rape and Incest National Network hotline were children.3

What organizations who work with children can do

Establishing strong protocols to prevent, detect and respond to abuse is a critical step for any organization involved in child care such as day cares, Head Starts, YMCAs, day camps, or Montessori schools, whether that abuse occurs on-site or off-site.

This process starts with clearly defined written policies that outline essential components of an organization’s abuse, neglect and exploitation prevention program. The written policies should detail rigorous screening protocols, consistent staff training for all key roles, monitoring processes, reporting procedures, incident investigation guidelines and resolution measures. In addition to being reviewed by legal counsel, this written policy should be assessed at regular intervals to make sure it’s up to date.

The written policy is the foundation, but procedures must be enacted and adhered to throughout the organization to be effective in prevention. As an example, prospective staff should undergo pre-employment background and reference checks as well as verification of education, licenses and certifications in line with internal policies. Screening requirements should also apply to volunteers, third-party contractors and any other outside parties that may be on-site during work hours. Additionally, physical facilities can be modified or constructed in ways that help reduce opportunities for abuse.

As it pertains to preventing and identifying both on-site and off-site abuse at facilities such as daycares or day camps, staff training is key. This training should include an overview of abuse prevention and reporting strategies, how to identify abuse indicators and symptoms, internal reporting workflows, reporting resolution and timelines, and specialized training for assigned roles, which will vary by position.

When a potential incident of abuse is identified by an organization such as a Y, a formal written report must be filed in line with internal reporting procedure. This involves an assigned staff member reviewing notes, photos, observations of witnesses, patterns of behavior, third-party reports and any other related material to determine if abuse is likely or absent. If child abuse is substantiated, it must be reported to applicable authorities, such as Child Protective Services, which will then begin their investigation. This process should be part of the internal reporting procedures that must be in line with state-specific or funding agency requirements. In the aftermath of any legal or regulatory actions, the organization should respond with corrective measures with an eye toward preventing future occurrences.

In the event that child abuse is substantiated or unsubstantiated, a resolution per the organization’s written policy should be determined. It is important to remember that just because a potential incident of abuse is unsubstantiated does not mean it should be forgotten or ignored. The nonabuse incident may still point to the need for additional precautions or staff adjustments (if applicable). In any case, all reports should be retained and kept on file for the purpose of tracking histories or unusual trends going forward.

Continued abuse monitoring is a must in the form of safety and/or vulnerability assessments. Within the organization’s walls, suspicious or unexplained injuries, inconsistent staff explanations or unusual behaviors around certain staff members are red flags.

Warning signs of child abuse

Organizations that work with children, such as day cares, Head Starts, and YMCAs, should be well-versed in the warning signs of child abuse.

Signs that may indicate a child could be experiencing abuse include4:

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
  • Behavioral changes, such as aggression, anger, hostility, hyperactivity or poor academic performance
  • Depression, anxiety, unusual fears or a sudden loss of self-confidence
  • Signs of minimal adult supervision (e.g., poor hygiene, weight loss or gain, and a lack of food or essential supplies)
  • Frequent absences from school or services
  • Attempts to run away or reluctance to return home
  • Rebellious or defiant behavior
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts

Some parental behavior may present warning signs of abuse. These include4:

  • Showing little concern for the child
  • Failing to recognize the child’s physical or emotional distress
  • Blaming the child for their problems
  • Consistently belittling or berating the child
  • Using harsh or violent forms of physical discipline
  • Limiting the child’s contact with others
  • Offering conflicting or unconvincing explanations for the child’s injuries

Specific signs and symptoms can vary depending on the type of abuse. For instance, signs of emotional abuse may be different than those of sexual abuse. It is also important to remember that the presence of warning signs does not necessarily mean abuse is occurring. However, it does mean an organization’s abuse protocols may need to be triggered.

Looking forward

Child abuse was a major public health concern before the COVID-19 pandemic, and based on recent findings, it will be an increasingly prevalent issue moving forward. Any child who experienced abuse or neglect, during or after the pandemic, should receive increased support to help them regain their health and well-being. Support for families, guardians, caregivers, children, human service organizations, support staff members, and everyone involved helps decrease risk factors and reduce the opportunities for abuse.

Nationwide® customers can access resources from in2vate, a risk-management company specializing in education, to help strengthen their child-abuse preparedness, prevention and response programs