Viewpoint: Risk factors for child abuse have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis

Author: Kristin Valentino, Kimberly Renk and Stephanie Block

After several weeks of stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, it is clear we are facing a crisis in child maltreatment. Well-known risk factors for the incidence of child abuse have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

At the same time, our ability to identify children experiencing maltreatment has been drastically limited by stay-at-home orders and school closures. As long as the community organizations that most frequently serve our children are closed or restricted, it will be necessary for our local and national leaders to bring together our multidisciplinary colleagues and different groups of people together find new ways to identify and prevent child abuse.

Children’s increased risk for child maltreatment, as well as other adverse childhood experiences during this pandemic should not come as a surprise. Parenting demands are increasingly stressful while childcare centers and schools are closed. School closures also exacerbate food insecurity as many children rely on free and reduced-cost school meals, all while food pantries are at a loss to help those families seeking food resources. Parents’ mental health is at increased risk during this time of stress, particularly as they worry about potential coronavirus risk and illness.

In the midst of these stressors, social support, a well-known protective factor that may mitigate the occurrence of child maltreatment, is limited by stay-at-home orders, during which even visits from extended family are discouraged. Instead, social isolation, another major risk factor for child maltreatment and other adverse childhood experiences, has increased. Although physical distancing is necessary for slowing the spread of COVID-19, it enables children’s experience of maltreatment to go unnoticed and makes it more difficult for families to seek and receive help.

As children are kept home from their usual child care and school settings, our ability to identify and protect them from child maltreatment has decreased substantially. Across the nation, reports to child protection hotlines are down as much as 62% as compared to this time last year. School professionals typically account for a large proportion of child protection reports. Many home-visiting, mental health and medical care services designed to support families at risk for child maltreatment are not operating at their usual capacity.

Instead of being able to intervene before severe abuse occurs, child protection calls are down, and emergency room visits for serious child maltreatment related injuries are increasing. As states across the nation are anticipating a surge of new child protection reports when stay-at-home orders are lifted, we must be prepared to intervene effectively.

We recommend focusing on two primary efforts: Work to increase family engagement in prevention efforts and work to promote awareness of child maltreatment and other adverse childhood experiences so that unsafe situations for children can be identified more readily. To do this in the context of COVID-19, we recommend information and resources be shifted to a “new front line” of individuals who are positioned strategically to reach at-risk children and their families.

It is important to recognize that there is an immense opportunity and need for primary prevention services during this time. Many families are facing challenges and stressors that they have never experienced before. It is critical that families know about available resources to help with food and shelter concerns, but also mental health and parenting supports.

It is also critical that we identify individuals who have the most contact with at-risk children and their families during this time. Once these frontline individuals are identified, they should be provided with information and training to talk with families about their needs and what services are available to help them feel supported. At the same time, we should provide widespread training on mandated reporting so that all of us are educated about indicators of child maltreatment and how to report. Keeping our children safe must be a community-wide effort.

The resources and needs of each community may vary substantially. Thus, we recommend that communities invite systems of care or professionals from child welfare, mental health, primary prevention, law enforcement, first responders and schools to come together to coordinate local efforts in a team-like fashion. As we continue to navigate addressing children’s exposure to maltreatment under our current pandemic conditions, it really will take a village to ensure the health and well-being of our children.

Kristin Valentino is professor of psychology and director and collegiate chair, William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families at the University of Notre Dame. Kimberly Renk is associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida. Stephanie Block is associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.