Pandemic ticking timebomb: child absue SanTan Sun News

Pandemic ticking timebomb: child absue

Pandemic ticking timebomb: child absue
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By Cecilia Chan
Staff Writer

Last week, Gilbert’s iconic Water Tower lit up blue for three days in recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

And a possible fallout of COVID-19 is an uptick in children being abused or neglected parents lose their jobs and the country remains on lockdown.

“We are anticipating with economic stressors and social stressors there will be increases in child abuse,” said Dr. Shawn Singleton, a pediatrician who works at the Banner Health Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa and Thunder Medical Center in Glendale. “Some areas of the country have seen increases of cases.

“Right now, we have not had any cases of child abuse in our centers, which is a good thing.”

Singleton surmised that may be because the weather is still nice, allowing people to be outdoors to walk, bike or hike.

But if social isolation remains in place as the Valley heats up, that may change.

“If we are unable to be outside to work off some of the energy and to just have some fun, perhaps we may see our spike if we are still required to do social isolation and quarantine,” Singleton said.

Another factor is that schools are closed – but not in a good way.

Teachers and other school personnel often see signs of child abuse, and calls to the state child abuse hotline have dropped since Gov. Doug Ducey closed schools for the rest of the academic year, according to Darren DaRonco, spokesman for the Department of Child Safety.

“On average, we are seeing an over 25 percent decrease in calls to our hotline since schools closed,” he said. “Teachers and school personnel comprise one of the largest groups to report child abuse. That means many children are suffering in silence.”

DCS cannot investigate child abuse and neglect unless it receives a report from the public.

Education personnel are responsible for making 20 percent of investigated reports, and law enforcement personnel, including school resource officers make 18 percent of reports that get investigated, according to Caleb Kimpel, spokesman for Scottsdale-based Childhelp, a nonprofit that helps child-abuse victims.

Kimpel said DCS identified 15,446 victims in 2018, ranking Arizona No. 24 in the country and tied with Colorado, Louisiana and Florida.

“There were nine victims of abuse or neglect for every 1,000 children,” Kimpel said. “The rate has actually gone up in the last few years. But I would caution against taking the maltreatment rate as necessarily indicating an increase in abuse. It could just as easily indicate more effective investigations and more reports. In the early-mid 2000s DCS reported rates as low as 2 per 1,000 children.”

Also in 2018, the latest available data showed the department investigated 87,498 cases in Arizona – tying with Iowa, New Mexico and New York at 53 investigations per 1,000 children, according to Kimpel.

“That rate has been consistently increasing over the years,” he added.

During the Great Recession, data on child abuse was mixed, according to the Pew Research Center – but “hospitals reported an increase in injuries consistent with abuse, including an increase in the number of reported bran and head traumas.”

Kimpel said a number of studies suggest economic downturn is associated with increased child maltreatment.

“While no child is free from risk of child maltreatment, at-risk children and children in poverty are substantially more vulnerable,” Kimpel said, noting:

“Economic downturns create stress for parents and conflict within families. Basic needs like housing, food and medical care are more difficult to secure in some families.”

He added with the widespread financial crisis, supportive structures like schools and social services are threatened by tighter budgets.

Several factors make it especially dangerous for children in the pandemic’s wake, Kimpel said.

“Most perpetrators of maltreatment are parents of the victim,” he said. “In Arizona, more than 90 percent of child maltreatment perpetrators identified by the Department of Child Safety are the parent, guardian or partner of a parent to the victim. If a survivor of abuse is at home with his or her parents, that child faces that much more risk.”

Kimpel said an adequate social support is vital in preventing abuse

and neglect but when parents lose touch with their network of care – like churches, workplaces and families – the risk of abuse increases.

“It is likely that for every child who has been identified as a victim of abuse, another child will have been abused without the knowledge of authorities,” Kimpel said.

So not only are abused children out of school, away from watchful eyes, but they are isolated with their abusers.

“That means it is likely there will be fewer cases reported and acted upon by the Department of Child Safety, but more abuse and neglect actually occurring in households,” Kimpel said; “the worse of both worlds.”

Singleton said there is a concern of increased cases of corporal punishment that do not require medical care.

“Our primary care physicians and urgent care also are aware of these red flags,” he said. “They are aware to bring these children in when they may have a concern during a telehealth visit.”

Use of remote medical visits has grown tremendously during the pandemic but the tool has its drawbacks.

“It makes it hard to assess certain injuries,” Singleton said. “It’s very dependent on a family’s computer and their camera, it could be dependent on the screen resolution on the provider’s end.

“It’s not always easy to evaluate bruises and injuries on skin so primary care providers will try to have those patients seen so they can be in the same room as the child,” Singleton said. “We are hoping that providers with any level of concern to get that child in to see them in person.”

Both Singleton and Kimpel said families can take steps to prevent the abuse or neglect of a child.

“There are ways we can support our friends and family,” said Singleton who suggested people do virtual check-ins with each other during this high-stressed time.

He said people who are not sick can “go over and help pay with the kids and give caregivers a chance to go shopping, a moment of kid-free time.”

There’s also a number of children activities online such as at Sesamestreet.org and coronavirus resources and tips for families at Prevent Child Abuse America, Singleton said.

Families in crisis can call 211, a non-emergency line in many communities that provides appropriate resources, according to Kimpel.

For parents who are in recovery from alcohol or substance abuse or in treatment for mental health, it is vitally important that they continue to engage in therapeutic interventions that have been helpful before COVID-19, he said.

And “for parents who find strength in faith, it is important to stay engaged in faith practices and community, even if they can’t physically go to church or synagogue,” Kimpel said. “If children have been involved in sports or activities that encourage them to be active and do their best, stay involved in whatever capacity is possible.

“The best resource to prevent child maltreatment are the ones that will be used,” Kimpel add. “What I mean by that is that every family is different and has different strengths and priorities. Likewise, every family faces different challenges.”

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