What to know about child abuse, the pandemic and how to help
This article was updated in April 2022 to reflect new information.
[7 MIN READ]
In this article:
- The risks of increased child abuse continue to linger after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Neighbors and community members can reach out to families, potentially reducing the risk of abuse.
- If you’re concerned about a child’s welfare, we have resources to support you in helping them.
Over the past two years of the pandemic, the amount of time people have been staying at home has increased. For many, this introduced more opportunities for quality family time – eating more meals together, playing games and taking walks through the neighborhood. But, for some families and vulnerable children, it’s created stressful situations that sometimes become unsafe.
“A lot of people are really struggling right now and that’s understandable,” says Michelle Fingerman, director of National Child Abuse Hotline & School Based programs at ChildHelp. “Stress is compounded because of the virus and people having less access to the outside world. Parents and guardians are juggling a lot right now – job loss, reduced hours, working from home, schooling children at home and lack of adequate childcare options.”
“Unfortunately, this can create a pressure-cooker situation and put some children at risk of abuse.”
It’s been difficult to get the full picture of child abuse during the pandemic due to social distancing and quarantine requirements. Initially, after the March 2020 lockdown, calls reporting child abuse declined, particularly among mandatory reporters, like teachers and childcare workers. School and daycare closures prevented them from interacting with children on a daily basis.
In fact, child maltreatment data for all of 2020 from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services revealed that from April to June, these calls fell by nearly 23%. Overall, throughout the year, child abuse calls were roughly 11% lower nationwide than 2019.
Even though state-reported calls declined, contacts via the national Childhelp Hotline, specifically, increased by 13.75%. Most of these contacts were text-based and they came from landlords, relatives, friends and even affected children themselves.
While this change in calls is concerning, it’s even more alarming that emergency departments across the country reported a substantial rise in severe injuries from child abuse throughout the year.
It’s important to note that, even as COVID-19 cases continue to decline, schools re-open and parents return to work, this problem isn’t going away. The emotional and financial stresses still run high, creating the potential for dangerous situations for children. During this COVID-19 pandemic, it’s essential to remember we’re in this together. Whether you’re a concerned neighbor or an overwhelmed parent, you are not alone. There are resources to keep everyone safe during this crisis.
Suspected child abuse: Signs to look for
Right now, neighbors, extended family members and family friends play a more critical role than ever in helping children at risk of child abuse and parents in need of support. Officials encourage adults to be on the lookout for any of these red flags that may indicate child abuse:
- You notice parents acting aggressively or hear repeated shouting
- You hear things being broken or a child being hit
- You hear children crying for long periods of time
- You notice safety hazards, including unsecured weapons within a child’s reach, drugs or unsanitary conditions at home
- A child’s guardian appears intoxicated or unable to care for children
- Children look dirty or wear dirty clothes repeatedly
- Children appear withdrawn or depressed
Right now, neighbors, extended family members and family friends play a more critical role than ever in helping children at risk of child abuse and parents in need of support.
“The biggest indicator of child abuse are injuries not consistent with what you would normally expect a child to have,” explains Michelle. “That includes a black eye or marks under their skin and other serious injuries.”
The Mayo Clinic also has a comprehensive list of possible signs of suspected physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
How to help families, children
In these stressful times, it is important to reach out to children and families in your neighborhood and community. By supporting children and families, you can reduce stress and isolation, which can lead to child maltreatment.
Look for visual cues and listen for verbal cues that may indicate stress, worry or even maltreatment. If you’re doing a video call, keep an eye out to see if the environment is clean and safe for children.
Here’s how you can help:
- Engage, connect with families. Let others know you’re available to help – however that may look. You can offer to make dinner, lend a hand watching children or just be available for a sympathetic ear. If you aren’t nearby, set up a weekly call or video visit to check in and say hi.
- Listen to children. Ask kids how are they are doing. This is not just a simple, “How are you?” Let them share their experiences and frustrations. Empathize and share stories of your own struggles. Show up for them and let them know you are always available and, more importantly, a safe place.
- Pay attention. Look for visual cues and listen for verbal cues that may indicate stress, worry or even maltreatment. If you’re doing a video call, keep an eye out to see if the environment is clean and safe for children. Listen for any clues that a child or parent may give you. Red flags may include statements like:
o “I’m just so mad all the time.”
o “I don’t know what to do.”
o “Mommy yells a lot.”
o “We don’t do/say that. It makes Mommy/Daddy mad.”
What to do if you suspect child abuse
If you suspect child abuse or maltreatment, the best thing you can do is make a call. You can report child abuse to your local state agency or you can call an organization like Childhelp and be connected with resources.
Childhelp isn’t a state agency that records suspected child abuse. Instead, they connect parents and concerned individuals with the resources and support they need. For example, if you suspect a child you know is being abused, a counselor at Childhelp can talk you through the signs you may be seeing and help you make a report through your state agency.
If a red flag goes up in your mind, then call. You may be the only voice for that child.
“If a red flag goes up in your mind, then call,” Michelle clearly states. “You may be the only voice for that child.”
Michelle understands that many adults may be hesitant to make a call or report child abuse.
“We tell people, if you’re wrong then it might make an uncomfortable conversation, but if you’re right then you are helping keep a child safe,” she says.
In the interest of child safety, below are some general guidelines to help guide your path if you suspect a child is being abused.
Help for parents
Resources are available for parents who find themselves pushed to their breaking point.
“Reach out for help when you feel overwhelmed,” encourages Michelle. “If you are feeling that anger build up and have that urge to lash out, call a counselor - whether it’s because the baby won’t stop crying at 2 a.m. or you’re feeling pulled in too many directions at once. Don’t hesitate to ask for support.”
If you are feeling that anger build up and have that urge to lash out, call a counselor - whether it’s because the baby won’t stop crying at 2 a.m. or you’re feeling pulled in too many directions at once. Don’t hesitate to ask for support.
“We can help you work through your emotions and keep your child safe,” she continues. “We’ll help you come up with strategies to take a time-out and be there for your child.”
Michelle adds that they often work with parents with a history of being abused as a child themselves. “Many people will repeat that cycle of learned behavior, but if they are aware of it, they can take steps to avoid the same trap as their parents.”
Counselors at Childhelp have been working with parents to manage their stress during COVID-19. That includes:
- Get out of the house, safely. Go to a park or take a walk. Taking a break from the same walls you’ve been staring out can help break up your day and provide a little relief, as can physical activity.
- Find time for yourself. Take time in your day to fill your own cup. “You can’t take care of others if your own cup is empty,” reminds Michelle. Read a book, go for a solo walk, enjoy a hobby or make a craft.
- Talk to someone. Connect with a counselor, a mental health professional or a trusted friend. Relationships and social connections are more important than ever as many of us continue to hunker down at home. Set up a weekly video call with friends or schedule a therapy appointment for yourself. Many providers are now offering telehealth visits to make it easier, safer and more convenient to get the care you need.
Help for kids
Michelle also reminds us that college kids are another impacted audience. Children who were abused at a younger age may now find themselves back at home with college campuses closed. This, understandably, can create a difficult and tense situation.
“It’s important for older children and young adults to have the coping skills they need to stay safe when they go back home,” Michelle explains. “That includes talking to a counselor or finding ways to separate yourself from your family as much as safely as possible.”
Connect with help
States and communities often have local agencies to support families in need and to facilitate reports of suspected child abuse. Check with your local government for resources near you.
Anyone can connect with a trained counselor Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. Call, text or chat with a counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text 1-800-422-4453 or live chat through the agency’s website.
But remember, if you suspect a child is in immediate danger, call 911 or local law enforcement.
Children at still at risk of child abuse during COVID-19, and may be experiencing more severe injuries and abuse. Learn how you can help and where to get the resources you need if you’re feeling overwhelmed. #COVID19
Learn how to report child abuse in your state:
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