The Systems and Legislation We Need to Protect Children

As COVID continues to spread around the world, the topic of public health is of paramount importance. But it would be a mistake to view the novel coronavirus pandemic solely in regards to physical health: the virus is also linked (directly and indirectly) to poor mental health, including anxiety and depression. 

Children have been especially hard hit in terms of mental health, post-COVID, as they may be more likely to experience abuse, neglect, and/or household dysfunction in the wake of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing mandates. In fact, according to UNICEF, “the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated violence, exploitation, and abuse as children are cut off from key support services.” The bulk of those vulnerable children are also dealing with the stressors of isolation, poverty, and fewer educational opportunities.

While the issue of protecting children is a global one, localized legislation may provide the key towards reducing the frequency of childhood abuse, neglect, and other forms of trauma. And make no mistake — the effects of childhood trauma can last into adulthood. Research indicates that adults who live through so-called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are at a high risk of developing both mental and physical illnesses. 

Understanding the Varied Effects of Childhood Trauma

Indeed, the long-term effects of childhood trauma are well known in the medical community. But while physical abuse often results in visible scars, it is the emotional wounds that are the most difficult to overcome. Traumatic events can even adversely affect the brain’s development, resulting in an impaired ability to process emotions, a reduction of motor functions, and other cognitive issues. 

What’s more, children who are mistreated or neglected may, unfortunately, perpetuate the cycle of abuse, becoming abusers themselves. Childhood trauma, especially when untreated, may result in problematic behaviors including depression, low self-esteem, aggression, and hostility. However, negative coping mechanisms stemming from childhood trauma may be mitigated by intervention from social workers and child welfare advocates.

Image Source: Charlein Gracia at Unsplash

When assessing children for potential ACEs, those professionals look for evidence of certain acts and behaviors, which can vary from state to state. Federal guidelines define child abuse and neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” States are obligated to use federal guidelines as the minimum standards for assessing possible ACEs. 

Yet it’s crucial to keep in mind that professionals cannot intervene if potential child abuse or neglect goes unreported. 

Protections for Young, Vulnerable Populations

A major hurdle to the reporting of abuse and neglect during a pandemic is the fact that more children are at home full-time. Remote schooling doesn’t allow teachers and social workers true face-to-face interactions with students, making it much easier for signs of ACEs to go overlooked. Educators are responsible for about 20% of the reports of abuse and neglect made to U.S. child protective service agencies, meaning that thousands of children may be left behind in the wake of widespread remote learning.

On the parental side, the lack of resources and personalized healthcare can increase the possibility of problematic behavior on the home front. Discipline is a necessary component of parenting, but some individuals may not make distinction between discipline and abuse, from a legal standpoint. For example, quick acts of physical discipline, such as a spanking, are generally not considered indicative of abuse, but physical discipline using a foreign object (such as a belt) may be considered an abusive form of punishment.

As previously mentioned, social isolation can exacerbate the issue, especially when parents are overwhelmed, underemployed, and isolated by a global pandemic. And when parents themselves have experienced past abuse or trauma, they may not immediately identify their own behavior as problematic. Protecting children also means giving caretakers the help they need, whether that involves education, mental health services, or another form of intervention. 

The Vital Role of Social Work in Child Welfare 

For many families adjusting to life wherein social distancing is the norm, the future may seem uncertain. And as our hospitals continue to reach patient capacity, it’s more important than ever to protect young people from traumatic experiences. As remote learning and shelter-in-place orders have left noticeable gaps in the potential reporting of abuse and neglect, other professionals must step in to intervene.

The nation’s social workers must thus remain vigilant, and work to identify signs of childhood trauma among patients, even while socially distant. For many underserved populations, social workers may be their only resource in terms of seeking help for mental illness, or to share their stories of trauma or abuse. Social workers also help families fulfill basic needs or refer abuse victims to the appropriate counseling services, where they may be able to learn ways to cope with, and ultimately heal from, traumatic events. 

Key Takeaways

Even as COVID-19 continues to dominate the headlines, we as a society cannot afford to ignore the effects of childhood trauma. And since mental and physical health are undeniably connected, protecting children from abuse and neglect may just equate to a healthier planet overall. Lawmakers, social workers, and parents alike should consider how social distancing is leaving children vulnerable, and take steps to mitigate the damage on a large scale.