Child abuse in COVID-19: What parents and caregivers should know

April 8, 2020

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month! While the coronavirus crisis captures the headlines of the day, one concerning trend that can get forgotten is how the COVID-19 crisis can exacerbate child abuse.

We checked in with Jane Meyer to learn more. Jane, a Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked at Catholic Charities for over 30 years, is the clinical director for our Children and Family Services and director of the Monmouth/Ocean Family Growth Program. The Family Growth Program provides individual, family, and group evidence-based treatment to survivors of childhood abuse and trauma.

Child abuse, sadly, seems as ancient as civilization itself. What are today’s trends in child abuse, nationally and locally?

Jane: Nationally, nearly 700,000 children suffer abuse and neglect each year. Statistics show that 1 in 10 children will be abused by the age of 18. Young children are the most vulnerable, and the number of abuse reports are similar for girls and boys. Most abuse occurs in the home, and 68 percent of victims are abused by family members. The New Jersey Department of Children and Families reported that in 2018, there were nearly 80,000 reports of child abuse investigated by the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency.

How has child abuse evolved in recent years?

Jane: We have come to understand that the “stranger danger” educational efforts of the past missed the mark. Of children today who experience abuse, 75 percent suffer neglect, 17 percent suffer physical abuse, and 8 percent suffer sexual abuse — and the majority of their abusers are related or known to the child, with nearly a quarter of them being children themselves. To end those trends, we need to do more to support families, enhance parenting skills, and reduce stress among caretakers. Technology brings additional risk as predators lurk online, and children may have more unsupervised time and can be exposed to inappropriate material.

Let’s talk about child abuse in the age of coronavirus. What are your concerns about child abuse now, specifically, during this ongoing coronavirus crisis?

Jane: This is a particularly concerning time for several reasons. First, most disclosures of abuse happen in school or child care programs. But children are currently isolated at home and away from the eyes of school professionals, and so abuse is not noticed or reported. Second, for many children, home is not a safe and nurturing place. So for families with challenges such as mental illness, substance abuse, children with special needs, domestic violence, or extreme poverty, the current coronavirus crisis only exacerbates the risk of child abuse.

Further, children may be separated from their safety nets, such as school, religious organizations, sports, or recreational activities. Since most abuse occurs at home, there is the added factor of children living in what can be an unsafe environment with caretakers who are more stressed due to fear, loss of income, and lack of support from extended family and community agencies.

Lastly, we also know that under stress, people may be more likely to turn to unhealthy coping behaviors such as substance use, gambling, risk-taking, and withdrawal, all of which will have a negative impact on the children in their care.

How can we protect children now, if they’re isolating with an abuser, considering the courts are closed? Social distancing, while necessary, creates some unique challenges in this aspect, correct?

Jane: We all need to be more mindful of children and families at risk. Everyone is a mandated reporter of child abuse, and right now, store clerks, delivery people, and essential workers are called upon to be extra-vigilant. We can also check in with families that are known to be at risk and offer support and material goods to let them know that they are not alone.

How is the Family Growth Program serving people now, during this time of socially distancing?

Jane: The Family Growth Program continues to work with families and accept new referrals. Most of the services are being provided remotely for the safety of all, and many of our families have opted to engage in treatment via phone or video conference. It is going surprisingly well! While it can be more difficult to engage a child in this manner, we are finding that we have the parent or caretaker more engaged in the session. We also are able to see the family’s living arrangement and get a better understanding of their home environment.

For families without access to reliable transportation, it has actually been easier for them to engage consistently. The clinicians have been extremely creative in coming up with ways to connect with their clients. We have started to get referrals for individuals suffering with anxiety around the COVID crisis and are able to help people manage their emotions and learn effective coping skills.

We know that childhood trauma can have lifelong impact. The coronavirus crisis is a trauma in everyone’s lives now, including children. Any advice for parents and caregivers to help their children deal with this?

Jane: Children are paying attention and taking cues from the adults in their lives. We need to be a source of safety and support at this time and parent to prevent trauma. Some suggestions for parents include:

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