Recognizing child abuse during a pandemic

Fewer calls are being made because there are fewer connections with kids and families due to quarantining, closed schools, fewer child care activities, etc., and concerns are not being reported.

Typically, a drop in the number of calls to child protective services would be cause for great celebration and taken as a sign of less child abuse and neglect.

Not this time.

You see, we know that child abuse and neglect increase during times of economic downturn, financial stress/poverty, and social isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic has been all of these things and the perfect storm for increases in child abuse and neglect. The reduction in calls is not because there are fewer cases. Fewer calls are being made because there are fewer connections with kids and families due to quarantining, closed schools, fewer child care activities, etc., and concerns are not being reported.

Related: Kentucky’s child abuse rate outranks rest of country for third year in row; Indiana leads nation in deaths

How can we better recognize the warning signs, especially in a Zoom and FaceTime world?

As Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky notes in a training video, “seeing” children remotely is a much different interface than interacting with them in person. Key tips for recognizing red flags include close observation of the background, checking in with caregivers, speaking directly with children and providing understanding and resources for difficult situations.

Close observation of the background for warning signs that go beyond the usual chaos of having multiple family members in an enclosed space is important. Is there an absence of food? Are there pests/rodents? How do the children look in terms of their hygiene, or is any weight loss observed? Is there a presence of a weapon or drug paraphernalia? These are all red flags and cause for possible concern. Another key is checking in with caregivers in a nonjudgmental way to assess coping skills and stress levels. Ask questions such as:

  • How are things?
  • Do you have everything you need for the kids to be successful at school?
  • What does a typical day look like for you?
  • Have the kids been acting out?
  • Who are your supports?

Typical responses include caregivers reporting they are “over it” or are “giving up.” Responses that are red flags for situations at risk for child abuse and/or neglect include expression of persistent negative emotion, an inability to see beyond the immediate concern of the moment, or the expression of extreme frustration and threat of aggression.

Report suspected child abuse

In Kentucky:

(877) KY-SAFE1 (597-2331)

In Indiana:

(800) 800-5556

Get confidential help

The National Child Abuse Hotline offers professional crisis counselors who can provide intervention, information and referrals to emergency, social services and support resources. Calls are confidential.

(800) 4-A-CHILD (422-4453)

Checking in with kids is also key. Meeting with them in small groups allows students to interact with one another and provides an opportunity to look and listen for warning signs. Questions to ask children may include:

  • What is the best/hardest part of your day?
  • What do you like/miss about staying home?

If you see something, say something!

During the COVID-19 pandemic, caregivers have been thrust simultaneously into the roles of teacher, friend, playmate, coach and parent and are still trying to work.

Work may include working from home and trying to juggle all the competing roles, or having to work outside the home and managing one’s own fears and anxiety as well as maintaining calm and reassurance for kids.

Reporting a situation may be the key to providing resources for maintaining a family’s nutrition, housing, and/or access to physical and mental health services. In the most critical situations, it could mean saving a child’s life.

In Kentucky, every single adult is a “mandated reporter,” meaning we are all obligated by law to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. Failure to report is a crime. Child abuse is 100% preventable, and our community’s kids are counting on you.

Kelly L. Dauk, M.D., is chair of Norton Children’s Hospital Child Abuse Task Force and a hospital medicine pediatrician with Norton Children’s Inpatient Care, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine.