My Turn: COVID-19 and children without a safety net

For the Monitor
Published: 3/25/2020 8:46:30 AM

The governor, administration officials and members of the health care industry are tasked with many calls to take action during the COVID-19 public health crisis. We at the Office of the Child Advocate now also call on neighbors, family, friends and local community members to do their part to protect children during these unprecedented times. They have lost their safety net.

On any given day, family functioning can be threatened by a litany of factors. When parents or caregivers lose the ability to cope with economic adversities, loss of employment, physical and mental illness, housing instability and other hardships, the effects on children can be devastating, even deadly.

There is a wide safety net for children woven together by teachers, vigilant school nurses and guidance counselors, child care workers, pediatric providers and after-school programs. The adults who populate a child’s life all day are watching for signs of distress from abuse or neglect. But in the time of COVID-19, school closures and service shutdowns, children are walking a tightrope without a safety net.

While calls to the National Parent Helpline for families in crisis have spiked 30% in the past week, New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) is starting to see a drop in calls reporting suspected abuse or neglect. Other states are seeing this too.

I wish that were good news, but it is likely not. If families are experiencing increasing stress of round-the-clock child care, disrupted family routines, economic worries of unemployment and the great unknown of a potentially lethal virus, children are undoubtedly at increased risk to feel the brunt of that stress.

We have to acknowledge that children at home, out of sight, during increasingly stressful times, are at increased risk of abuse or neglect. We must all be alert and watchful for signs.

Here is how you can help: Call, email, text, video chat or shout over the fence from next door, “How’s the remote learning going at home? You doing okay?”

Check in with parents you know are home with their children. Acknowledge their stress and compliment their efforts, however small. Offer suggestions for meaningful, stress-reducing activities such as taking a walk, listening and dancing to music, playing a game or watching a funny show. Parents and children alike may just need to talk, let them know you are there to listen, despite the distance.

If parents appear to be struggling, be sure they know where they can get help: Urge them to call the 211 Infoline for local resources, DCYF to report concerning stress levels, New Hampshire’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-NH) at 225-5359, or the Childhelp Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD to speak or text with a crisis counselor.

Despite all of the uncertainty, and because of it, be sure families know this will end. Everyone needs hope to get through a rough time.

Finally, we must remember that every citizen in New Hampshire is a mandated reporter of suspected child abuse or neglect. If you are not clear what that means, check out the Know and Tell Initiative at Knowandtell.org. Know & Tell provides information about how to recognize signs of child abuse or neglect and what to do about it. They offer an excellent on-line training course – take the time to complete it.

If you are unsure, let the experts figure it out and call DCYF at 271-6562 or (800) 894-5533 (in-state only). Often DCYF supports can be offered to families who are at risk through community-based voluntary services. The Office of the Child Advocate is also here to help at 271-7773.

We may be asked to remain home and limit our contact with each other, but we are still one community. The safety net we weave should be one that prevents child abuse, neglect and family breakdown.

(Moira O’Neill is the director of the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent agency created to provide oversight of DCYF and promote the best interest of children.)


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