April is Child Abuse Awareness Month

Children may be more at risk of abuse and neglect amid the coronavirus pandemic — cut off from watchful adults and trapped in stressful, uncertain home situations during the statewide shelter in place order.  

As families struggle to navigate the precarious financial landscape in the coming weeks, such as making rent and paying for groceries during a time of economic instability, officials warn that children could face neglect and abuse exacerbated by these deeply stressful situations. 

"Initially in times of crisis, we see people maybe pulling together, people slowing down a little bit, caring for each other," said Rhenda Hodnett, assistant secretary of child welfare at the state Department of Children and Family Services. "Then, as the reality sets in and the crisis lasts longer, that’s when we become more concerned about the stress taking the toll on people and children being at more risk of maltreatment."

While Louisiana has seen a decline in child abuse reports since the outbreak of COVID-19, officials with DCFS say this is not necessarily because incidents of abuse are decreasing. Instead, with schools closed and extracurricular activities canceled, children are cut off from mandated reporters, like teachers or coaches, who are required to call in suspected abuse.

"This distancing and isolation has really put a whole other layer of thought into figuring out how kids are protected," Hodnett said.

A similar pattern unfolds during the summer months when children are out of class, isolated from concerned adults who might notice bruises or malnourishment. But when disasters strike, from floods to pandemics, the stakes are higher for children in potentially abusive situations, officials say. 

"Whenever someone is under stress of not being able to meet the needs of their children and their family, the fear sets in," Hodnett said. "Patience gets low. People just get overwhelmed. In times of stress, it’s always a concern, and children can be at higher risk."

Despite the pandemic, DCFS personnel are still responding to abuse reports, going into the community to assess a situation. Alert to the dangers of potentially contracting COVID-19, personnel screen homes before they enter. Hodnett pointed out that as the crisis drags on, their workforce will need to stay healthy to handle the calls and ensure children are safe.

Most of the reported incidents of abuse involve neglect, Hodnett said, so finding ways to support families who may lack food or financial resources because of unemployment during the crisis is critical. While local outreach groups are stepping up to make their resources visible during this uncertain time, Hodnett said, neighbors can do their part to help, too. 

Purchasing gift cards to local businesses for struggling families to access food and offering to be phone support while someone is applying for SNAP or unemployment benefits can go a long way, she said. 

In the meantime, if a family, neighbor or friend suspects abuse, Hodnett said, try to "get some eyes on the kids" to determine if a child is safe. Most indicators of abuse are relatively easy to spot in person, from unexplained injuries to drastic mood changes to frequent absences from school.  

As people shelter in place and these interactions are lost, Hodnett said, the next best thing is to try to get a child on a video call to observe whether they seem to be eating enough, what their mood is like or if they show obvious signs of physical trauma. 

"If it’s someone you’re worried about, try to FaceTime, ask how kids are doing and see how they are," Hodnett said. "Get eyes on them to check and make sure they are okay.

KIDLINE, at 1-800-244-5373, provides crisis intervention and parenting support statewide. People can also text 225-424-1533 for support. 

For those who suspect a child is being abused by a parent or caretaker, call toll-free: 1-888-4LA-KIDS (1-855-452-5437). All calls are confidential.

Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com