An Ontario pediatrician says she’s worried about the potential for an increase in child abuse happening behind closed doors and going unreported, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Michelle Ward is head of the child and youth protection division at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). Her concern is mostly based on anecdotal reports so far, but she said the situation is “anxiety provoking” nevertheless.
“We know, even from the past, that when there’s a downturn in the economy we do see a spike in child abuse cases afterwards. Even just with financial stress we know that gets worse,” she explained.
Many parents are stressed about finances, many are stressed about providing around-the-clock care to their children, and many don’t have the same “pop off valve” afforded by sending kids to school and going to work, said Ward.
“At the very beginning of this we saw a little bit of a spike in child abuse cases and, since then, it’s really gone quiet. And that’s what’s so concerning to all of us. The police, the child welfare workers and the medical people that work in this field.”
Ward, who is also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a fellow in global journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said Edmonton’s Zebra Child Protection Centre is reporting a 32 per cent decrease in new reports of child abuse, compared to last year.
Estimates she’s heard from other regions, including her local area of Ottawa, peg the decreases in new child abuse cases at between 30 to 40 per cent.
Noting that one third of adults say they’ve experienced violence in their homes growing up, Ward said child abuse in Canada is common at the best of times.
She’s worried the country will see more severe cases amid the pandemic and is concerned about what impact that could have on the mental health of kids who are staying in an unsafe or uncomfortable home environment for an extended period of time.
“I expect when people get back to school we’ll start seeing a lot more calls and concerns being raised about how they’re doing.”
Legal responsibility to report child abuse
In the meantime, Ward suggests people reach out to family members, friends and others in their community.
“It’s not up to individuals to investigate what’s going on in other homes … but I think just checking in with the people that you already know and reaching out in that gentle, empathetic way to people in your community who might be struggling,” she said.
Ward also reminds people that, in every province, they have a legal responsibility to report to child welfare services if they think a child is being hurt or at risk of being hurt.
Ward said it’s completely normal for parents to feel overwhelmed and stressed out, but emphasized the importance of recognizing and addressing those feelings rather than being ashamed of them.
“This is a common problem and it’s in every neighbourhood, it’s not exclusive to certain areas of the country or certain areas of the city or certain socioeconomic groups.”
She also said that reaching out to a child welfare agency for help does not mean that children will be taken away from their parents.
Statistics from 2019 show “97 per cent of the time what they do is provide services to help the children stay safely in their homes,” said Ward.
And kids can reach out for help too, she added.
In the first two weeks of March, the Kids Help Phone reported a 350 per cent increase in the number of young people contacting the help line about COVID-19.