No ev­i­dence of surge in child abuse

Ex­perts warned of an in­crease dur­ing stay-home or­ders

Chicago Tribune - - NATION & WORLD - By David Crary

NEW YORK — When the coro­n­avirus pan­demic took hold across the United States in mid-March, forc­ing schools to close and many chil­dren to be locked down in house­holds buf­feted by job losses and other forms of stress, many child­wel­fare ex­perts warned of a likely surge of child abuse.

Fif­teen weeks later, the wor­ries per­sist. Yet some ex­perts on the front lines — in­clud­ing pe­di­a­tri­cians who helped sound the alarm — say they have seen no ev­i­dence of a marked in­crease.

Among them is Dr. Lori Frasier, who heads the child-pro­tec­tion pro­gram at Penn State’s Her­shey Med­i­cal Cen­ter and is pres­i­dent of a na­tional so­ci­ety of pe­di­a­tri­cians spe­cial­iz­ing in child abuse preven­tion and treat­ment.

Frasier said she got in­put re­cently from 18 col­leagues across the coun­try and “no one has ex­pe­ri­enced the surge of abuse they were ex­pect­ing.”

A sim­i­lar as­sess­ment came from Jerry Mil­ner, who com­mu­ni­cates with child-pro­tec­tion agen­cies na­tion­wide as head of the Chil­dren’s Bu­reau at the fed­eral Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. “I’m not aware of any data that would sub­stan­ti­ate that chil­dren are be­ing abused at a higher rate dur­ing the pan­demic,” he said.

Still, some ex­perts be­lieve the ac­tual level of abuse dur­ing the pan­demic is be­ing hid­den be­cause many chil­dren are see­ing nei­ther teach­ers nor doc­tors, and many child-pro­tec­tion agen­cies have cut back on home vis­its by case­work­ers.

“There’s no ques­tion chil­dren are more at risk — and we won’t be able to see those chil­dren un­til school re­opens,” said Marci Hamil­ton, a Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­fes­sor who heads CHILD USA, a think tank seek­ing to pre­vent child abuse and ne­glect.

Sev­eral states said calls to their child-abuse hot­lines dropped by 40% or more, which they at­trib­uted to the fact that teach­ers and school nurses, who are re­quired to re­port sus­pected abuse, no longer had di­rect con­tact with stu­dents.

“While calls have gone down, that doesn’t mean abuse has stopped,” said Gov. Chris Su­nunu of New Hamp­shire, which re­ported a 50% drop in hot­line calls.

Com­pre­hen­sive data on abuse dur­ing the pan­demic won’t be avail­able for months, ac­cord­ing to Mil­ner.

And what­ever the cur­rent level of abuse, there’s no ques­tion some of it is hor­rific.

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

“The level of sever­ity in some of those cases is un­real,” she said.

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

“With the pan­demic, we saw the high job­less rates, the lay­offs, and we thought ‘OK, now we’re in for it again,’ ” she said.

She and oth­ers have noted some changes dur­ing the pan­demic — for ex­am­ple, more ac­ci­den­tal in­juries from burns, falls and mishaps on farms. What they have not seen is a surge of child abuse.

Frasier has a cou­ple of guesses as to why — a pro­tec­tive ef­fect in house­holds where mul­ti­ple peo­ple were locked down to­gether and fed­eral fi­nan­cial aid that eased the stress on some vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies.

In Nashville, Ten­nessee, Dr. Heather Wil­liams says she and her col­leagues who spe­cial­ize in child-abuse pe­di­atrics were braced for a pan­demic-fu­eled surge, based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of 2008. Now she won­ders if the re­cent in­fu­sion of fed­eral un­em­ploy­ment as­sis­tance may have helped ward off such an in­crease.

“We’d be re­ally ex­cited if we’re wrong,” she said.

At the Chil­dren’s Bu­reau, Mil­ner says he’s grat­i­fied that child pro­tec­tion is deemed a high pri­or­ity dur­ing the pan­demic, but he was trou­bled by the tone of some of the early warn­ings. He sug­gested that some had “racist un­der­pin­nings” — un­fairly stereo­typ­ing low-in­come par­ents of color as prone to abu­sive be­hav­ior.

“To sound alarm bells, be­cause teach­ers aren’t see­ing kids ev­ery day, that par­ents are wait­ing to harm their kids — it’s an un­fair de­pic­tion of so many par­ents out there do­ing the best un­der very tough cir­cum­stances,” he said.

One of Mil­ner’s top aides, spe­cial as­sis­tant David Kelly, noted that in nor­mal times a large ma­jor­ity of calls to child-abuse hot­lines don’t trig­ger in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

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

“If we take a closer look, we might be able to see the depth of re­siliency that is present and the re­mark­able ef­forts poor par­ents make to get by on the small­est frac­tion of what many of us have.”

Con­cerns about chil­dren’s well-be­ing amid the pan­demic ex­tend be­yond phys­i­cal abuse. There are wor­ries about chil­dren miss­ing vac­ci­na­tions as their par­ents skip vis­its to doc­tors’ of­fices.

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

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


Child-wel­fare ex­perts warned of a rise in child abuse with schools shut­tered amid the pan­demic. Above, a closed el­e­men­tary school in He­lena, Mon­tana.

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