How Safe were Children at Home During the Pandemic?

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How Safe were Children at Home During the Pandemic?   

Jim Windell

           Despite the number of school shootings in recent years, I’ve always believed that children are better off in school than at home. That is, children are less likely to be hurt or abused at school than they would be at school.

          But what happens during a pandemic when children cannot go to school and they are home almost all the time?

          Are they more or less likely to be abuse at home during a pandemic?

          In one early study reported on in March, 2021 in the journal Pediatrics, researchers tracked the number of pediatric inpatients ages 5 and under in 52 children’s hospitals nationwide for the first eight months of 2020 and discovered a steep decline in the number of ER visits and hospital admissions for children.

          Unfortunately, now it appears they is a more definitive answer to the question. A new report delivered to the Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Child Abuse and Neglect on October 9, 2021, at the 2021 American Academy of Pediatrics virtual meeting says that the physical abuse of school-aged kids tripled during the early months of the pandemic when widespread stay-at-home orders were in effect.

          For the study, researchers analyzed data on more than 39,000 children treated at nine pediatric trauma centers between March and September of 2020. Of these, 2,064 were victims of suspected child abuse. Among children aged 5 and older, the number of child abuse victims tripled to 103, up from an average of 36 during a similar period before the pandemic, the study found.

          The researchers, led by senior study author Dr. Katherine Flynn-O'Brien, associate trauma medical director at Children's Wisconsin in Milwaukee, found that a greater proportion of older children reported abuse after stay-at-home orders went into effect last year.

          “The most common injury identified was head injury,” said Dr. Flynn-O’Brien, “followed by a mix of chest, abdomen, extremity and burn injuries."

          Exactly what triggered the surge is not fully understood, but other studies have also reported similar upticks in child abuse. Perhaps, some pediatricians say, COVID-19 and pandemic-related stresses created a “perfect storm” for abuse. “Stressful situations can be a trigger for poor judgment and impulsive reactions,” said Dr. Allison Jackson, division chief of the Child and Adolescent Protection Center at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “There was a great deal of economic stress, job insecurity, and loss of housing potential during this time frame along with the closing of schools, which can be a reprieve for parents and kids.”

          Despite the rise in abuse of school-aged children, according to Dr. Andrea Asnes, a leader of the AAP Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and director of Yale Programs for Safety, Advocacy and Healing in New Haven, Connecticut, other studies have found no increase in abuse of younger children during this same time frame.

          “Daycare centers for little kids were considered essential and remained open, which allowed some families to function, but older kids were stuck at home,” Dr. Asnes, who is nit involved in this study, explained. But she also added that this new study may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to child abuse in older kids during the pandemic. “The vast majority of child physical abuse is not managed in the hospital,” she said. “Older kids who get punched or beaten with a belt don't always require medical care, so it's certainly possible that more abuse could have gone undetected.”

          With many schools opening up again it may mean that rates of child abuse will decrease. But according to Flynn-O’Brien, the public health message is clear. “Systemic safeguards such as social services that help families, particularly those least resourced and most vulnerable, should be considered essential during a national crisis.”

          This study, while reported on at the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, by Allison Jackson, M.D., division chief, Child and Adolescent Protection Center, Children's National Hospital, Washington D.C., Katherine Flynn-O'Brien, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor, surgery, Medical College of Wisconsin, and Andrea Asnes, M.D., M.S.W., associate professor, pediatrics, director, Yale Programs for Safety, Advocacy and Healing, should be considered preliminary until the findings are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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