COVID Masks Child Abuse

Since the introduction of “shelter in place” measures here and around the country, child welfare systems have reported a significant decline in child abuse reports. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted the trend here in Los Angeles and similar stories have emerged in numerous other parts of the country. The decline in reports seems counter-intuitive since the pandemic has created conditions that often lead to abuse such as unemployment, loss of health insurance, and congested living environments, particularly for families who are vulnerable and at risk of experiencing abuse. Add to that mental health or substance dependence issues and a poor situation can quickly become desperate, traumatic and tragic, especially for children.

So why the drop in reports of such abuse? Typically school personnel are the eyes into a home because of their regular contact and interaction with children and their families. But with the temporary closures of school and childcare centers, those eyes and ears who are trained to spot abuse have been sidelined. No one believes that there is less abuse or neglect—there’s likely more happening because of this pandemic. We just don’t know what exactly is going on while families are so isolated and it is frightening to think that some children may be experiencing abuse with no safety net to watch over them.

Hillsides has a number of programs that supports children and their families who are at risk of abuse or neglect. Because of protocols related to COVID-19, our physical access to these families has been limited and dependent on technology-based contact, mostly through teleconferencing. During these “visits,” children are asked to speak in a room alone away from family and phone cameras have been used to scan the home to assess the physical environment. None of these measures are foolproof or truly allay any concerns. As a result, it is sometimes required that workers brave the risks of exposure to the virus to visit a child and family in order to mitigate any potential abuse.

These situations are not approached naively. However, the most effective posture with these families is to be seen as partners committed to easing the conditions that place the family at risk. Especially at a time when their needs are intensified because of COVID-19, families are looking for resources to address their concerns and keep everyone safe and healthy.

More than ever, now is the time for us to be a good neighbor and stay in touch with family members to be a supportive presence helping to ease the isolation, anxiety and material needs they may have. We all need a lifeline, especially at such a desperate time for some. Our caring and supportive presence can be the one thing that keeps a family from falling into a tragic cycle of violence and keep a frightened child safe.

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