Experts see no evidence of an increase in child abuse during a pandemic

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NEW YORK (AP) – When the coronavirus pandemic occurred in the United States in mid-March, which forced schools to close and many children to be trapped in households affected by job losses and other stresses, many child welfare experts warned of a probable wave of child abuse.

The concerns persist fifteen weeks later. Still, some front-line experts, including pediatricians who have worked on the alarm, say they haven’t seen any signs of a marked increase.

Among them is Dr. Lori Frasier, who leads the child protection program at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center and chairs a national pediatric association specializing in the prevention and treatment of child abuse.

Frasier said she has received input from 18 of her colleagues across the country in recent days and “no one has experienced the wave of abuse they expected.”

A similar assessment came from Jerry Milner, who, as the head of the Children’s Office of the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, communicates with national child protection agencies. “I am not aware of data that would show that children are more likely to be abused during the pandemic,” he told The Associated Press.

Still, some experts believe that the actual level of abuse during the pandemic is obscured because many children see neither teachers nor doctors, and many child welfare agencies have cut back on home visits by case workers.

“There is no doubt that children are more at risk – and we will not be able to see those children until school opens again,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, head of CHILD USA, a think tank that wants child abuse and neglect. appearance .

Several states said calls to their child abuse reporting centers have dropped by 40% or more, which is attributed to the fact that teachers and school nurses, who are suspected of reporting abuse, were no longer in direct contact with students.

“Although calls have declined, it does not mean that the abuse has stopped,” said New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who reported a 50% drop in hotline calls.

Extensive data on abuse during the pandemic will not be available for many months, according to Milner.

And whatever the current level of abuse, there is no doubt that some of it is horrifying.

Georgia Boothe of Children’s Aid, a private agency that provides a number of New York City’s foster care services, said some of the children who are now entering the system were brought in by police officers who investigated the reports of domestic violence.

“In some of those cases, the seriousness isn’t real,” she said.

Frasier, the Pennsylvania-based pediatrician, said that during the 2008 recession, some of her colleagues documented a sharp increase in shaken-baby syndrome and children’s head injuries, which they attributed at least in part to economic stress.

“During the pandemic, we saw the high unemployment rates, the layoffs and we thought ‘OK, now we are back in it,'” she said.

She and others have noticed some changes during the pandemic – for example, more accidental injuries from burns, falls, and farm accidents. What they haven’t seen is a wave of child abuse.

Frasier has a few guesses as to why – a protective effect in multi-cling households and federal financial aid that relieved stress in some vulnerable families.

In Nashville, Tennessee, says Dr. Heather Williams said she and her colleagues who specialize in child abuse are bracing themselves for a pandemic-induced wave based on 2008 experiences. She now questions whether the recent infusion of federal unemployment support might have helped reverse such an increase. keep out.

“We would be very excited if we were wrong,” she said.

At the Children’s Office, Milner says he is pleased that child protection is considered a high priority during the pandemic, but he was concerned about the tone of some of the early warnings. He suggested that some had “racist underpinnings” – unjustified stereotyping of low-income colored parents as prone to abuse.

“To sound the alarm bells, because teachers don’t see kids every day, parents are waiting to hurt their kids – it’s an unfair representation of so many parents doing best in very difficult circumstances,” he said.

One of Milner’s top employees, Special Assistant David Kelly, noted that in normal times, a vast majority of calls to child abuse hotlines do not initiate investigations.

“We know that most of the child abuse findings relate to neglect, not physical abuse or exploitation, and we know that there are strong associations between neglect and challenges related to poverty,” Kelly wrote in a June 12 article. the Chronicle of Social Change.

“If we take a closer look … maybe we can see the degree of resilience that is present and the remarkable efforts poor parents make to save the smallest fraction of what many of us have.”

Concerns about the well-being of children during the pandemic extend beyond physical violence. There are concerns that children are missing vaccinations because their parents skip visits to the doctor’s office.

For children with Internet access, weeks away from school have increased the risk of online sexual exploitation, Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau. She heads the Johns Hopkins Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.

However, Letourneau is encouraged by a recent trend: more older children are calling hotlines themselves to report exploitation and abuse.

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