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The Kids Are Not Alright

Why school reopenings will trigger flooded child abuse hotlines, and why that's a good thing.

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Courtesy of the Children's Advocacy Center of Collier County, Naples, FL
Courtesy of the Children's Advocacy Center of Collier County, Naples, FL

Another horrific side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is domestic violence. Calls to domestic abuse hotlines have more than doubled since March compared with the same period last year. But calls to child abuse hotlines plummeted to a fraction of the typical number. That sounds like great news, but it’s not. Why? Because teachers and childcare workers are typically the first to observe and report suspected abuse. The longer kids in abusive situations are isolated and away from their watchful eyes, the greater their risk for more prolonged and more severe abuse. Families dealing with loss of livelihoods, mounting bills, reduced interaction with support systems, and confinement together in close quarters for long periods of time create a perfect petri dish for accelerated mental health issues, substance abuse and stress-induced violence.

So while educators and parents work to safely accommodate full or partial return to classrooms this month, child abuse agencies in every state are gearing up for a significant flood of cases. This is not unprecedented, according to Jackie Stephens, CEO of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collier County in Naples, Florida: “It’s very similar to the situation we saw happen during the 2008-2009 recession,” she says, “and it crosses all geographic and socioeconomic boundaries.”

It’s a misconception that child abuse occurs mostly in lower income communities or in less educated households, Stephens says. “Due to the pandemic, even wealthy and financially stable communities are in crisis. Through no fault of their own, professionals at normally high income levels are facing job loss and depletion of retirement and college funds. Successful entrepreneurs have been forced to close their businesses. Panic and anger can quickly accelerate into domestic violence and child abuse.”

For stressed-out parents struggling to maintain positive relationships with each other and care for their children during this crisis, Stephens offers these tips provided by her CAC counseling staff and the national organization PICT (Parent-Child Interaction Therapy):

Keep burning energy. Walk, jog or bicycle in your neighborhood, swim, dig in the garden. This is essential. And then…Take a nap! Oh yes, you can. It’s physically and emotionally necessary. When we’re rested, we can feel more relaxed and able to handle stress.

Cut some slack. Children under stress are likely to be emotional, seek more attention, or act out in uncharacteristic ways. If you have a child in the clumsy, spilled milk stage, it is likely to be worse right now. If your children will be learning remotely, keep your expectations reasonable. Make a huge effort to cut yourself and everyone else in the family some slack. 

Count to ten. A few seconds of emotional time-out on your part can make the difference between calm discipline and abuse. Studies prove that the emotional effects constant yelling and parental fighting in the child’s presence can be as devastating as physical abuse, requiring years of counseling to repair.

Limit media exposure. Non-stop coverage of this disease, as well as world disasters and social unrest, builds on fear and maximizes stress levels. Rely on your trusted sources for hard news and skip the rehashing commentaries.

Practice self- care. You’re best able to take care of your loved ones when you take care of yourself. Show extra kindness and affection to each other; the kids will notice. Whatever brings you calm, joy, or just a few minutes of distraction, do that!

Talk it out (or cry it out) with your best friend or closest family member. Many health care providers, including child safety and mental health resources, offer online telehealth services, including face-to-face counseling.

Report possible abuse. While teachers, childcare workers, coaches and religious leaders struggle to adapt to the new COVID-related health and safety requirements in this new environment, they desperately need extra eyes and ears. If you know of or suspect child abuse, call the national child abuse hotline, 1-800-422-4453.  

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