UNT professor offers thoughts on spike in severe child abuse

DENTON (UNT), Texas — While home is generally considered a safe place – hence the shelter-in-place orders meant to keep people in their homes – some hospitals are reporting a spike in severe child abuse cases.

Clinical Assistant Professor Cassidy Baker at the University of North Texas College of Health and Public Service said the spike could be due to several factors, including increased stress, a lack of interactions between children, teachers or other adults who could report early signs of abuse and a difficulty in getting outside support from extended family and friends that may have been a regular part of life before the pandemic.

She discusses possible causes, offers tips for prevention and gives insight into what is happening with cases already in the court system prior to the quarantine.

Are there outside factors that can contribute to child abuse?

The factors that contribute to child abuse and neglect are multifaceted and complex, cutting across all socio-economic levels. Economic stressors, mental health challenges, substance abuse, family violence, coping capacities of parents and caregivers coupled with the needs of a child based on their age and other developmental factors can all contribute in some way to abuse and neglect. Social support can help to alleviate these risks, but in our current state of social isolation and the collective traumatic experiences related to the global pandemic, everyday stressors can be heightened to a dangerous level.

Are professionals currently experiencing a change in the number of child abuse cases they see?

While the numbers of reported cases of child abuse and neglect have actually lowered somewhat during this crisis, the severity of those cases has increased. Historically, the majority of reports are submitted by teachers, preschool personnel and other mandated-reporter professionals who interact with children on a regular basis. With most families staying at home, children are not coming in contact with professionals who might identify a concern and report it to the hotline. Because of this shift, the cases that are reported are the most serious incidents that come to the attention of medical personnel and law enforcement.

In your opinion, what factors could be contributing to the change?

The philosophy of the child welfare system is to provide help and resources to families in order to keep children safe within their own homes and with their own family connections if at all possible. Because less severe cases are not currently being reported at the same level, child protection professionals are not able to intervene early with supportive measures that could help prevent extreme child abuse. Many times, child welfare agencies are able to offer financial support for rent and utilities along with protective daycare. Without the opportunity to incorporate these preventative measures, risk factors of abuse may remain unmitigated leading to severe and hazardous circumstances.

What are some things parents can do if they feel overwhelmed?

The advice I have for parents is the same advice I am trying to give myself. As parents, we have to show ourselves grace and remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can in a situation that none of us has faced in our lifetime. There is no precedent for the “right” way to parent during a global pandemic. While this is an overwhelming time, we must find ways to care for ourselves and reach out for help when needed in order to ensure our children are protected and secure. When parents are feeling frustrated, it is perfectly acceptable to place your children in another room where they are safe in order to take a moment.

With the shelter-in-place order, it’s much harder for parents to get a break by sending the kids to see grandparents, other relatives or friends. Is there a safe place children can go with the shelter-in-place order?

As for all of us during these trying times, it is important to continue to reach out to our family members with children to offer whatever type of support we can in line with the shelter-in-place orders. There are many community agencies who are trained to work with parents to develop plans for keeping their children safe, whether that be within their own home or assisting with relocation if necessary.

What about children and families who were already involved with the child welfare system due to abuse or neglect that occurred prior to the COVID-19 crisis?

In the state of Texas, there are currently over 27,000 children who have been removed from their parents and placed in a foster home or with an approved relative caregiver. Due to shelter-in-place orders, parent-child visitation meetings now occur virtually and services parents must complete to reunify their family have been adapted to online formats. While these adaptations can create barriers due to access to technology, some innovations that have resulted may in fact strengthen the services the child welfare system is able to provide in the long run. For example, during this crisis, courts have allowed certain family law and adoption proceedings to be held via Zoom. Hopefully, some of these novel practices will be permanently incorporated to streamline some of the bureaucratic barriers that oftentimes hinder a child from being reunified with their family or adopted into a permanent home in a timely manner.

How can someone help these families and children without violating the shelter-in-place order?

There are several nonprofit agencies in our community that are continuing to provide help and support to children and families through these trying times. Court Appointed Special Advocates of Denton County provides advocacy services for families involved with the child welfare system. For families and children who have faced abuse or neglect, the Child Advocacy Center for Denton County offers counseling and group support services. Additionally, Denton County Friends of the Family can assist with shelter, advocacy and counseling for children and families who are experiencing violence. These agencies provide excellent care and are innovating their services in order to continue to meet the needs of families in our community. Individuals can reach out for support or volunteer to assist families in need. If you are concerned that a child you know may be experiencing abuse or neglect, please call the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services at 1-800-252-5400 or report online at txabusehotline.org.