COVID-19 UpdatesHCN News & Notes

How to Protect Children from Abuse During Coronavirus Pandemic

SPRINGFIELD — The coronavirus pandemic around the world is the perfect storm for creating another pandemic here at home, one of child abuse that affects one of our most vulnerable populations — children.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, designed to raise public awareness of child abuse and neglect. This year, Child Abuse Prevention Month is coming as the full thrust of the coronavirus pandemic begins to affect our community.

According to a report on NBC News, hotlines in Colorado, Texas, Illinois, and California have received fewer reports of child abuse since stay-at-home orders have been put into place.

“So far, we are seeing a decrease in child-abuse reports nationally. We don’t know if this is because people are rallying in a storm, or because cases are ‘socially isolating’ and never being recognized or reported,” said pediatrician Dr. Stephen Boos, medical director of the Baystate Family Advocacy Center. “One thing we do know is that the health, social, and economic consequences of this pandemic are hugely stressful. Stress combined with being locked in the house together is a great breeding ground for emotional and physical abuse.”

NBC also reported that teachers, coaches, and healthcare professionals, people trained to recognize child abuse, “are just not seeing these kids,” according to Daphne Young, chief communications officer for Childhelp, a child-welfare organization with a national abuse hotline. Unlike other hotlines, Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline has seen a 23% increase in calls and a 263% increase in texts compared to March 2019. With in-person operations limited at child protective services and other government agencies, kids and teens have been texting the hotline themselves from unsafe homes.

Children are shut in with families and all are bored, frightened, and dealing with change and uncertainty, Boos noted. He suggests three proven ways to prevent child abuse and increase children’s resilience in these difficult times. Three elements of the ‘strengthening families approach’ are easily adapted to the current crisis — social connectedness, practical help in times of need, and knowledge of parenting and child development.

“We are supported and sustained by our relationship with others,” he said. “We need to find ways to connect ourselves for sanity while isolating ourselves for safety.”

He suggests scheduling time in the day for phone calls, video chats, neighborly talks over the fence, and walks in the woods while keeping the group small and maintaining that six-foot isolation.

“We should plan this for our own families before the stress gets to us. We can also reach out to other families for whom we had concerns before the current pandemic,” he noted.

Practical help also matters, whether it is a government check, someone dropping off groceries at your door, or lending you a computer or wi-fi connection. “Anything that makes it easier to get through the day, and especially something that tells you that your community cares about you, can give you the energy to tolerate one more complaint of boredom or one more tantrum by your child,” Boos said.

Yet the hardest of the three elements is upping your game on parenting when you are stressed out and serving the role of parent, teacher, daycare provider, and afterschool activities director, he noted.

“I encourage parents to build a rational schedule for themselves and their children. You should plan for a regular wakeup time; time for schoolwork in modest, tolerable chunks; and rewarding and fun activities including screen time, social connecting, exercise, and spiritual or religious meditation. Adults need time to attend to themselves and to renew the primary parent-to-parent relationship. It is also good to schedule limited media time to check on the epidemic and not follow it obsessively from moment to moment.”

In addition, Boos said, “when things are going well, tell your kids what they are doing that is helpful, how it is helping you, and how much you appreciate it. Do this often, and occasionally give them a reward. When things aren’t going so well, let the child know without yelling or lecturing, but by saying it in a quiet word, simple gesture, or other signal. And, don’t forget sleep. Set a bedtime, get all screens off a couple of hours beforehand, and schedule relaxing, quiet activities in a darkened environment before bed.”

The Baystate pediatrician offered some encouraging words in these difficult times, noting that “all of these recommendations are good for normal times as well. If we can gain these skills, connections, and systems through this hard time, they can benefit us when it is all over and serve us when other adversity occurs in the future. When the coronavirus pandemic ends, we will find that the long-term payback was well worth the effort.”

Assistance for parents or guardians relating to children during the coronavirus pandemic is available by calling the Parental Stress Line at (800) 632-8188, available 24/7 in all languages, or visiting the Massachusetts organization Resources for parents and caregivers to help keep children safe from child sexual abuse are available at or by calling (888) PREVENT. Reports of suspected abuse can be made to the Department of Children and Families hotline at (800) 792-5200.