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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

CHILD SAFETY

COVID-19 fallout threatens vulnerable children

Multiple stressors combine to create potential for abuse or neglect

David Colburn
Posted 4/15/20

REGIONAL- Three-year-old Katie wasn’t like her preschool classmates. Instead of the bubbly enthusiasm flowing from her peers as they played together, she sat quietly in a corner, all alone, her …

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CHILD SAFETY

COVID-19 fallout threatens vulnerable children

Multiple stressors combine to create potential for abuse or neglect

Posted

REGIONAL- Three-year-old Katie wasn’t like her preschool classmates. Instead of the bubbly enthusiasm flowing from her peers as they played together, she sat quietly in a corner, all alone, her trembling hands fumbling as she tried putting a puzzle together. Any time an adult drew near or talked to her, she stopped working, dropped her head, and drew her body into a perfectly still and frightened little ball until the threatening attention went away.
“She’s been like that ever since she was abused,” her teacher explained.
Katie and her two older brothers lived in a family that was barely making ends meet when her father suddenly lost his job. Unable to get work and with rent and bills past due a month and more, he was sullen, depressed, irritable, demanding, and dove into alcohol to numb himself from the world, the teacher said.
One day, when then two-year-old Katie was throwing a tantrum and would not stop, something in her father snapped. He bolted up from his chair, roughly snatched Katie from the floor, and threw her across the room into a wall. She crumpled to the floor and lay still. Later, at the hospital, they discovered Katie had a fractured skull and a broken arm, but no life-threatening internal injuries, the teacher said.
“She curls up like that so that she doesn’t do anything that could make someone want to hurt her again,” the teacher said.
There hadn’t been any history of abuse by the father before this, the teacher said. Child protective social workers said it happened because the father was under stress much greater than he could cope with.
The story is true, although it happened in another state and the name is fictitious. But the circumstances are not unlike those now facing thousands of Minnesota families as their worlds have been turned upside down and inside out in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. With schools and businesses closed, thousands out of work and facing financial hardships, and families isolated by social distancing and stay-at-home orders, circumstances couldn’t be much worse for sparking a possible increase in child abuse and neglect.
“There’s a lot of concern for how children and families will fare during this time,” said Paula Stocke, division director for St. Louis County Children and Family Services in Virginia. “So the unknowns, even with temporary assistance, create increased stress, anxiety, and frustration.”
Neglect occurs more frequently than abuse. It can be neglect of meeting a child’s physical needs for food, shelter, and clothing, or emotional, often stemming from lack of attention when they’re in distress, or simply failing to display the normal affection and interactions they have been used to.
Physical abuse involves injuries both minor and major inflicted on a child, whether purposeful or unintentional. One of the most prevalent factors causing a parent to abuse their child is not having the coping skills necessary to deal with extreme stress, which includes limited or no interaction with a social support network of extended family and friends.
State officials involved with child protective services confirmed the urgency of the situation in a written statement provided to the Timberjay.
“The COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures being taken to address it, are certainly creating stressful conditions for many families,” the statement said. “Social isolation, unemployment and other economic stressors, as well as the general strain posed by the physical risks associated with this pandemic are all risks generally associated with increased rates of maltreatment.”
And while the incidence of abuse and neglect is likely to go up, the chance individual cases will be reported decreases because children now aren’t in regular face-to-face contact with teachers and medical providers who are mandated to report suspected abuse and neglect. The written statement provided to the Timberjay confirmed that reports of maltreatment decreased by 30 percent in the first week children were out of school compared to the previous three weeks. Approximately 80 percent of maltreatment reports in 2019 were made by mandated reporters.
With education back in session via distance learning, Stocke said regular videoconferencing that’s taking place between teachers and students, as well as more frequent parental contacts, could help to fill the reporting gap.
Video check-ins and phone calls also have increased significantly between social workers and the families they work with through the reporting, support, and supervising system for those who have been reported for possible abuse or neglect, Stocke said. Eliminating drive time has actually increased opportunities for engagement with clients.
“With the shelter-in-place orders it’s a really tricky balance,” she said. “We’re trying to do our part to mitigate the spread. We have limited PPE so we have to be strategic in how we’re interviewing and relying on people’s networks. More workers are in a mobile work arrangement, and we’re partnering with law enforcement for more imminent situations.”
An important part of their work is trying to keep parents and children engaged with each other when a child has been taken out of a home and placed in a temporary living arrangement. Stocke described how one parent has recorded a video of herself reading a book that the child’s foster parent shares with the child every night.
“We’re trying to be very creative,” Stocke said.
When reports of possible abuse or neglect are received in the Virginia or Duluth offices, those investigating are also allowed by statute to contact a family’s extended support network, including family or neighbors, which helps not only with investigations but with finding crucial support.
Stocke said her staff also has been scrambling to keep up with what community support services have to offer families, given that they, too, are affected by the COVID-19 situation.
“A lot of the typical community resources we encourage people to connect with are suspending services,” Stocke said. “For example, access at a food pantry – are they in place or not, are their services different? We have a centralized place on the county internet site where social workers can go to find out. We’re really doing our homework to see what’s out there.”
Stocke said she is grateful for state actions that have eased some of the stress for families, such as halting evictions and not penalizing people, but as the pandemic continues so will uncertainties and stress.
Those who suspect abuse or neglect in northern St. Louis County can report it by calling the Virginia office Initial Intervention Unit at 218-471-7128, or by going to the county website, stlouiscountymn.gov, and clicking on the “Report Child Abuse” button found on the Children and Family Services Child Protection web page. In an emergency call 9-1-1 to reach local law enforcement.

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