With the COVID-19 pandemic putting more stress on families than ever and removing common community safety nets for spotting child abuse and neglect, such as schools and doctors’ offices, children are more vulnerable to harm right now, according to Cathy Brittis, program manager for the Child Advocacy Center at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
“We need to be their voice. If you have a concern or see something that worries you, you need to call child protection. In New Hampshire, every citizen is actually a mandated reporter, and our kids are counting on us to help keep them safe and help their families during these really trying times,” Brittis said during Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s final “Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19” web series on managing stress and mental health during the pandemic.
Becky Parton, co-director for Project Launch of the Dartmouth Trauma Interventions Research Center, also appeared as an expert on the web series. Audra Burns, Dartmouth-Hitchcock media relations manager, moderated the episode which focused on “how to ‘know and tell’ the signs that children and families may be at risk of abuse, neglect and mental-health crises due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Parton said typically an at-risk family is one experiencing high levels of stress such as economic stress, job loss or stress at work, not being able to pay bills, struggling with substance misuse or domestic violence, or experiencing recent significant changes such as divorce, loss or death.
“Right now I would say every family is at risk,” Parton said. “All of us are having increased stress levels because of COVID-19.”
Brittis said she agreed: “I think the most important thing right now is that we acknowledge that we are all at risk — all families are at risk. These are unprecedented times with unpredictable stressors. Families that never ever had to worry before now our worrying about, ‘Where is our next meal coming from? How are they going to pay our mortgage?’ And we need to acknowledge that these stressors are having a significant impact on our physical, mental and emotional well-being.”
Parton said the one thing everyone can do to help is to check in with people that they know.
“We can call our loved ones. Call our friends and family. Check in on our neighbors,” Parton said. “If you see a neighbor who looks really stressed out and they’re yelling at their kids more, just say, ‘How are you doing? Can I do anything to help?’ It can be checking in and offering a meal. It can be offering to play with their kids for just a few minutes outside.”
You can offer to blow bubbles with the children or play with sidewalk chalk, she said. “There are little things we can do to sort of ease the stressors of our friends and neighbors.”
On the mental-health side, Parton said, a routine in the home that includes a regularly scheduled meal, exercise and sleep time helps families feel better, experience less tension and argue less.
Burns asked Parton what parents can expect now that school is over, and families are headed into summer without the structure of day care and summer camp. Speaking about her own family life, Burns said, “I was looking forward to homeschooling being over with, but now it’s the reality of, ‘Well now what? It’s summer’.”
Parton said families have been saddled with the “impossible task” of trying to work at home and care for their children at the same time. “There are some families that have lost their jobs; that’s just as stressful in some ways as trying to work full time and take care of your kids at the same time, so pretty much all families are experiencing stress around that.”
Parton added that parents are also anxious about what activities they can participate in with their children, such as can they take their children to the park and how much screen time is too much? She added there are some day-care facilities and camps opening up, and she recommends parents find out what resources are available locally.
Brittis said children are counting on adults to protect them from abuse and neglect and recommends everyone educate themselves on how to spot the signs. She said the Granite State Children’s Alliance’s “Know and Tell” campaign, which is available online at the knowandtell.org, is a great resource.
“Some of the things that are important to look for are the child’s appearance and their behaviors,” Brittis said. “Are you seeing unexplained injuries or things that are concerning? Has a child’s behavior gone from a kid who’s really engaged, have they become withdrawn? Have they become more aggressive? It’s really important that we pay attention to those because that’s often a cry for help from our kids.”
Also, pay attention to a child’s environment, Brittis said. With increased stress, there is often an increase in substance use.
The social isolation of the pandemic is increasing the risk if danger and harm for some children, Brittis said, adding that reports of child abuse are down because the normal safety nets for identifying and reporting children abuse are non-existent right now, and telehealth visits are not adequate in spotting the signs of abuse. However, reports of child neglect are going up due to reports of increased substance use and poor supervision in the home, she said. “These are unprecedented times where children themselves are actually calling helplines not knowing what to do.”
“We have families that are struggling more than ever,” Brittis said. “With schools ending there is going to be less structure for families. There is limited day care for families and summer camps. And supervision is going to be challenging for families with limited resources ...The system has already seen a spike in violence in homes. So, now more than ever, if you are seeing anything or hearing about this, you need to speak up and report it.”
Find the entire “Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19” web series online at https://go.d-h.org/headsup.