An estimated one billion children are abused, neglected or mistreated globally each year, according to the World Health organization. But when at-risk children are in school and involved in community support programs, there is a built-in oversight that can help keep them safer. Clinicians, educators, and coaches are all on hand to help identify a child who may be in danger.
As a mental health provider who specializes in working with at-risk children and trauma, I know how critical the educational community is in protecting children. Being able to intervene when we see something concerning and when there is a change in a child’s well-being (they are withdrawn, often upset, always hungry, coming to school dirty or with suspicious marks) provides a safety net for a vulnerable child, but now that it has become necessary to close schools and imperative for communities to practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, these children are at an increased risk for abuse or neglect.
At-risk children are already at a heightened risk for maltreatment during school breaks due to the increased amount of time they will spend with a potentially abusive caregiver and the lack of protective oversight. In many states, there is a notable increase in the reports of abuse or neglect that are made to child protective services after the summer — when children return to school and those safeguards are back in place. Because even when school districts refer children to summer programs (camps, counseling, so on) to ensure at-risk kids are connected to support, caregivers may decline to bring them.
“Without the oversight from the school, the abuse got worse over the summer,” Brittany Brockenbrough, a mother of two children living in Virginia, tells SheKnows of her own childhood experiences with abuse. “I never directly disclosed that I was being abused at school, but my parents knew they could not leave bruises on me or the school would see. During the summer, they felt that they could do whatever they wanted. It was terrifying. I thought that I was going to die from the abuse someday and no one would know if something happened to me.”
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During this pandemic, vulnerable children may face even more risks than they already face in the summer because school and other supportive community programs are now closed and social distancing, while necessary, also limits an at-risk child’s access to neighbors and other social connections that may have otherwise been a support. States are already reporting a significant decrease in calls reporting abuse or neglect, since children are more isolated at home and do not have the same access to help.
Some school districts, like those in NYC, are providing support to at-risk families and students over the phone. But, of course, not all students have consistent access to a phone and many children will not be able to speak in private and therefore might not be able to safely disclose child abuse or child maltreatment.
Sarah Gundle, a psychotherapist in New York City, tells SheKnows that “the isolation caused by COVID-19 can increase the dangers for at-risk children. Without daily contact with schools, abuse can go unchecked.”
Since students in many states will likely be out of school for an extended period of time, it’s important that the community be vigilant in helping at risk-children. While the safeguards that schools and support service programs provide are not in place, communities need to be more observant of the risk factors that children in at-risk or abusive homes face.
There may be a child that you have already been concerned about — one of your child’s friends, or a child in your neighborhood — where something may seem amiss or not quite right, but you were hesitant or unsure of what to do. But it is critical that we take the time to check in on these children (while still maintaining safety precautions).
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At Childhelp, we pray for the health and safety of the world, and especially vulnerable populations. These unfortunate times can put added pressure and stress on families, and in turn, may put children at risk or exasperate abusive situations. If you are concerned about a child, have questions, or are a youth in need, please know that our professional counselors are here to listen 24/7 via call and text at 1-800-4-A-CHILD or online chat at www.childhelphotline.org.
These are some things that can be done to help an at-risk child.
- Talk with your children about letting you know if one of their friends tells them something concerning or posts something alarming in a group chat or online group. Abuse is not a secret children should keep. Discuss with your child that they’re not betraying their friend by telling; they are helping them, and concealing abuse can cause more harm.
- If you can, let an at-risk child know they can reach out to you if they ever need help. Whenever possible, provide resources such as the 24-hour crisis text line or Stop It Now. These are resources that a child can access 24/7.
- If you do suspect abuse/neglect/maltreatment, contact child protective services (they are still taking reports during this public health crises) or contact childhelp.org to learn more about the signs of abuse. Reports can be made anonymously.
- When there are limited resources (food, supplies) and strained finances, stress levels rise significantly and children are at an increased risk. If you know a family in need, offer to pick up some things at the store and leave them at their doorstep.
- Since social distancing is imperative, reach out in other ways. If you have the email addresses of the parents in your child’s class or other families in your community, or if you belong to a Facebook group with other parents, send out a general message: “Just sending this information out in case it may be helpful to someone.” Then, provide resources such as the National Parent Helpline, and Open Counseling, in hopes that they may reach a family in crisis.
- If you have a reason to be concerned about one of your children’s friends or classmates, set up a “virtual” playdate (if they have internet access). If the kids are doing remote learning, the children can talk over video chat about their school work — and you can try to get a sense of how that student is doing.
- If you do see or hear something concerning, but you’re unsure if it requires further action, contact your state’s child abuse reporting hotline and share your concerns; they can determine if the situation requires additional follow-up.
“We were that family,” says Brockenbrough. “I often dropped hints to my friends’ parents about the abuse, but no one did anything.”
In this time of great uncertainty, we should never assume someone else has already intervened in an alarming situation. You may be a child’s only chance to get help.
If you know or suspect a child has been sexually abused, contact your state’s Department of Child Services, the ChildHelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline (800-4ACHILD or 800-422-4453) or the Stop It Now! help line (888-PREVENT or 888-773-8368). Advice and information can also be found at the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute (404-872-5152) and The Family Institute (847-733-4300).