Since COVID-19 hit, official reports of child abuse and neglect have decreased nationally and in Virginia, but pediatrics experts warn that might not mean fewer cases of abuse.
“When families and parents are under greater stress, generally abuse increases,” President of the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Michael Martin told The Virginia Star. “We are seeing the impact of stress on kids in the significant rise in mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety. So we know the stress triggers of abusive behavior are there. Ironically, reports of abuse are down which suggests that cases are not being reported.”
AAP spokesperson Robert Sege told The Virginia Star, “There are two things that might be going on. One is, the children are not being seen by their teachers, or their early childhood educators, or even friends and neighbors, people who typically might be noticing abuse or neglect. So we’re all worried that children are being hurt, but no one is seeing them.”
Sege said that extra financial benefits during COVID-19, combined with parents being home more, may also help reduce the stress and potential for abuse and neglect. However, he added, “The bottom line is we’re all really worried about it because [traditionally, in] families that are more stressed financially or when there’s more uncertainty, children get neglected or even abused. There’s a lot of concern about it but we don’t have any real information about what’s going on.”
Sege said monitoring neglect is just one reason to reopen schools. “Children need schooling, the academic part, the socialization, all of those things. And this is a very difficult issue because it depends on the amount of virus in a community, on the physical structure of the schools, but wherever possible, we think that children should be going to as much physical school as they can safely.”
Samaritan House provides housing and support services to victims of abuse in Hampton Roads. Marketing Manager Andrew Roberts said in an email, “Since the pandemic began, we have seen a dramatic rise in need for our services, especially during the lockdown, when victims were at home most of the time with their abuser. Economic stress and general anxiety due to the pandemic have also triggered increases in domestic violence.”
Empowerhouse VA is a non-profit domestic violence resource in the Fredericksburg area. Assistant Director Tammy Torres said that their hotline has seen a 28 percent increase in the past six months when compared to the previous six month period.
Sege said that with schools closed, neighbors and community members need to be more involved in checking on each other, and that adults should provide safe places for kids to confide in responsible adults. “In general, children tell the truth. They want to love their parents, they want to be loved. If a child starts telling you something, it’s time to get involved.” Sege said citizens also need to support safety nets, including food for children who normally eat at school, and housing for people who have lost jobs.
“We need to make sure that our politicians protect families through this,” Sege said. “COVID will end but this family disruption and the horrible things that will happen if society doesn’t support people whose lives have been so disrupted through absolutely no fault of their own, those effects will be with us for a very long time.”
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