Reducing child abuse when sheltering at home is not safe

May 21, 2020
Audrey Smolkin
Audrey Smolkin, MPP
Executive Director, Center on Child Wellbeing & Trauma

As the country struggles to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are being asked to practice social distancing and to shelter at home. But for those who suffer as victims of child abuse home is no shelter at all.

Data shows as households experience the extreme stress of social isolation and illness, along with the financial, housing, and food insecurity the pandemic has produced, incidents of child abuse and domestic violence increase—even in homes where violence had not previously been an issue.

The irony is that during a pandemic, as the threat of violence to children increases, reported incidents often decrease. That is because the teachers and school counselors who usually serve as front-line observers and reporters of possible child abuse are no longer seeing children every day.

By law, teachers, childcare providers, and others must file reports of suspected abuse. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reduced the visibility of children to adults who comprise that safety net, as well as reducing access to extended family members, church groups, and other community-based activities where someone might take note of a child’s anxious behavior or a new bruise.

Recognizing a need and taking action

As the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold, CWM child and family policy experts partnered with the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate (OCA). Together they created a robust communications plan to promote the numerous resources available to help parents and children manage their way through the storm of COVID-19-induced stress and reduce incidents of child abuse and domestic violence.

The plan was multi-faceted: First, encourage adults to develop an increased level of awareness of changes in a child’s behavior and to more visible, outward signs of abuse. Second, make sure adults and children know about the many available services, programs, and information aimed at reducing stress with the hope that, in turn, this will reduce the threat of neglect and abusive or risky behavior.

Through a coalition of participating state agencies and professional organizations, information was shared with a wide variety of people and stakeholders about available resources for children and families, all with a goal of violence prevention.

Campaign materials include flyers and signage produced in seven languages, along with social media and professionally-produced videos. You can see all the available campaign materials at the websites for Office of the Child Advocate, and the Family Resource Centers.

To learn more about Commonwealth Medicine’s collaborative, data-driven communications program aimed at helping parents build the skills and access the resources they need to manage stress safely, please contact Audrey Smolkin, director, Child and Family Policy.