Earlier in the pandemic, Div. 37 raised concerns about the risk of maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some parents might appreciate extra time at home with their children, for other families, the pandemic brought massive economic turmoil. Parents were abruptly cut off from resources—separated from extended family and friends and child-care support. Children were out of school, away from structure, friends, and—critically—away from the oversight of teachers.
Now, two new studies from early in the pandemic confirm the fears of increased child maltreatment risk (Rodriguez, Lee, Ward, & Pu, 2020). The first study, involving a national sample of 405 parents, found that parents who reported they worried about their finances were twice as likely to report they were yelling at their children more often since the pandemic began and engaging in more neglect. Parents who reported more loneliness were nearly three times more likely to neglect their children and over 2.5 times more likely to report more conflict since the pandemic began. Parents who described more worry were two to three times more likely to report they were yelling, hitting, or neglecting their children.
The second study built on the first study based on reports from 106 mothers previously enrolled in a longitudinal study. Mothers who described they had increased hitting, yelling, or neglect during the pandemic had the highest scores on established measures of child abuse risk. Mothers with financial loss from a change in employment also had higher child abuse risk scores. If families had received free school meals before the pandemic, mothers reported struggling to feed their children and having more conflict with their children. And mothers who felt lonelier also felt that their parenting had become harsher—reporting more conflict, hitting, yelling, and neglect.
Most importantly, this study could compare mothers’ reports during the pandemic with their scores prior to the pandemic. Those analyses indicated that mothers’ child abuse risk and yelling had increased, and their perception that their parenting had worsened matched actual changes in their abuse risk over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses unprecedented and unique dangers for maltreatment. COVID-19 led to historic unemployment—the highest since the Great Depression. With schools closed, families who relied on school meals suddenly scrambled to feed their children in the midst of grave economic uncertainty. Parents were isolated with “stay-at-home” guidelines while simultaneously dealing with economic stress, mental health challenges, and responding to children’s reactions to their own disruptions and distress. The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in challenges for most Americans. Families who were already struggling before the pandemic were particularly vulnerable—especially communities of color who are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
The most frequent reporters of child maltreatment—teachers, doctors, mental health professionals—suddenly lost access to children during this pandemic. Official reports to child welfare in many states plummeted (Jonson-Reid et al., 2020) even while news reports described increases in hospital visits and hospitalizations from child abuse (Da Silva, 2020; Woodall, 2020).
The current child welfare system is a reactive system that tends to respond to the most serious cases. A more proactive prevention approach would prevent child maltreatment in the first place—a reimagining of how we protect children from maltreatment that would incorporate some of the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Fortson et al., 2016). Many state policies that support the social safety net contribute to concrete reductions in child maltreatment cases (Maguire-Jack et al., in press).
Consider adapting guidance on trauma informed care for children from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for telehealth services. Identifying resources and supports for parents and children remains critical. Parents may have questions about how their child is coping during the pandemic and whether to seek help. Consider sharing this video on COVID life and Kids' Mental Health with parents and the Consortium for Science-Based Information on Children, Youth and Families webpage for resources.
APA has also compiled multiple resources about parenting during the pandemic. APA also rallied a taskforce, including one specifically for issues confronting children and families: Follow the task force Facebook page for updates and check their list of resources that includes multiple websites, books, and webinars, with hyperlinks.
Given the policy focus of Div. 37, consider this Well Being Trust guide on promoting policy change for children’s mental health. Such proactive changes would allow professionals invested in the welfare of children and families to respond more nimbly in times of crisis.
A version of this article first appeared in Psychology Today.
Da Silva, C. (2020, March 22). Texas hospital child abuse cases rise in Covid-19 outbreak: “It’s hard to think that it’s just coincidental’. Newsweek.https://www.newsweek.com/texas-hospital-child-abuse-cases-rise-covid-19-outbreak-1493642
Fortson, B. L., Klevens, J., Merrick, M.T., Gilbert, L.K., & Alexander, S.P. (2016). Preventing child abuse and neglect: A technical package for policy, norm, and programmatic activities. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/CAN-Prevention-Technical-Package.pdf
Jonson-Reid, M., Drake, B., Cobetto, C., & Ocampo, M. G. (2020, April 14). Child abuse prevention month in the context of Covid-19. Washington University Center for Innovation in Child Maltreatment Policy, Research and Training. https://cicm.wustl.edu/child-abuse-prevention-month-in-the-context-of-covid-19/
Maguire-Jack, K., Johnson-Motoyama, M., & Parmenter, S. (in press). Economic supports for working parents: The relationship of TANF, child care subsidy, SNAP, and EITC to child maltreatment prevention. Aggression and Violent Behavior.
Rodriguez, C. M., Lee, S. J., Ward, K. P., & Pu, D. F. (2020). The perfect storm: Hidden risk of child maltreatment during the Covid-19 pandemic. Child Maltreatment. Online first: https://doi.org/10.1177/1077559520982066
Woodall, C. (2020, May 13). As hospitals see more severe child abuse injuries during coronavirus, ‘the worst is yet to come.’ USA Today.https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/05/13/hospitals- seeing-more-severe-child-abuse-injuries-during-coronavirus/3116395001/